"What did politicians say about Iraq?" Ask that question of Google and the top result is something less than authoritative. It's an entry on a blog called Doug's Darkworld. And the text is more about Kurdish politicians than American ones. This example actually indicates a key search problem. How's a search engine to know what kind of politicians the user is thinking about?
Execs at Powerset, a startup search engine, say they can do a better job with searches like that and millions of others. At the TechCrunch40 conference in San Francisco on Monday, Powerset unveiled Powerset Labs, a forum in which users can help tweak the next-generation search engine, slated for launch "sometime in 2008."
A screenshot the company made available Monday shows how it handles that sample query. Powerset picked up stories about George Bush and John Kerry, as well as Winston Churchill -- even though those hits apparently don't include the word "politicians."
Natural Language Search
Powerset is building a "natural language" search engine that can make semantic sense of user queries. In February, Powerset announced it had licensed natural language technology from Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. "Our system reads every single sentence in every single document and extracts meaning from them," said Powerset Chief Executive Barney Pell.
Powerset has launched its Labs feature now, even though the service itself won't launch until 2008, because "the earlier we have input from the best natural language processing units on the planet -- the brains of humans -- the quicker our search engine will improve," the company said on its blog.
Users today don't typically ask full questions of Google. They type in very short queries, typically not more than two or three words, according to one survey. Powerset requires longer, more complex queries to shine, Pell conceded. "Absolutely this requires a change in user behavior," he said in a press report. "People have to go and learn that."
The way people search on Google is to "type in short queries and then refine," noted independent technology analyst Greg Sterling in a telephone interview. Powerset's biggest task will be to convince users to change their habits, he agreed.
Claims about natural language, semantic searching, and the rest will be "meaningless to consumers," Sterling said. "It's a question of whether Powerset delivers a better experience than Google."
Living Up to the Hype
Powerset has been hyping its technology with quotes like the following from investor Charles Moldow of Foundation Capital: "We expect Powerset to fundamentally alter how people interact with their computing devices." With "sound and fury" like that, Sterling said, the company has to manage the high expectations is has created. "This is a danger for them and it remains to be seen what they can really do."
Is Google so entrenched as the No. 1 search engine that no competitor -- not even one that lives up to Powerset's hype -- can unseat it? Not necessarily, said Sterling. Last month, the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index found that fewer customers were satisfied with Google than in the past, while Ask.com and Yahoo showed large increases in user satisfaction. Index researchers say these numbers are forward-looking indicators of future consumer behavior.
"Google has some vulnerability there," Sterling said, adding that Google might be facing some pushback from users who dislike its growing domination and its policies in China, for example.
Because Powerset and many other pretenders to the search crown are adding social search features such as tagging and voting, Google's adherence to a plain, utilitarian interface might prove to be a weak point in retaining users. "But when the fingers hit the keyboard," Sterling Concluded, "the questions is 'Does Powerset give me markedly better results than Google?'"