Powerset is back in the news again (you may recall they were ‘discovered’ back in October), this time for winning the exclusive rights to search technology developed at the famed Palo Alto Research Center in Silicon Valley. The technology essentially allows Powerset to understand the meaning of your search query (you know, “natural language” as they call it). Apparently Google is developing something similar. Here’s what VentureBeat says:
Clearly, Powerset faces challenges. Even if its technology does prove to be useful, it isn’t clear how long it will keep any lead (in natural language) in the face of an onslaught from Google. Another challenge is changing peoples’ search behavior, which is used to keyword searches.
Maybe I am being naïve, but I don’t think changing peoples’ search behavior will be all that hard. We still think in natural language before deciding what keywords to enter into the box. And some people don’t even bother to pick out keywords, they just type a sentence or question.
I think their biggest problem will be proving that their technology works and is useful. For now I’ve got Powerset filed under the “believe it when I see it” category. And assuming they really can do natural language search, will it be that useful? The keyword based search we use today works fairly well for general queries. I think natural language search definitely has value, but I don’t think it will replace Google overnight, if ever. There are certain types of queries that are probably better suited to keyword-based search.
And let’s not forget that millions of people (myself included) use Google and other search engines as navigational tools almost as much as information-finding tools. A quick glance at the 2006 year end Google Zeitgeist will show you that – half of the top ten queries were the names of websites.