Powerset – A Worthy Adversary for Google?

Backed by an impressive roster of investors and a licensing relationship with Palo Alto Research Center, Powerset has ambitions to change the way we search online.

How exactly do the people behind Powerset plan to do this you ask? It’s simple; by building a natural language search engine with the ability to read and understand every sentence on the web.

The truth is this will not be simple at all. Beyond the initial challenge of indexing the entire web, the Powerset search engine will require users to shift their search behavior away from the two to three keyword queries to using crafted natural-language queries or full phrases, sentences and questions.

No doubt there are skeptics of the natural-language search engine. Search expert Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, disputes the idea of asking a question rather than typing in a few words:

They aren’t using ‘keywordese’ now because they somehow have been trained to do it. No one from Google sat the searchers down and said “only two words, and don’t use conjunctions.” People search however they want — and right now, they use only a few words. If Powerset’s going to change those habits, good luck.

Ultimately, this begs the question: why would users want to change the way they search? According to Powerset CEO, Barney Pell:

The limited query length puts fundamental limits on how much information is communicated to the search engine. This in turn limits what a search engine, however intelligent, could possibly do to improve the results (using more information about the searcher and the search context can help, and is the subject of much active research). Looking at this situation, it is easy to see why it seems like the search industry has matured and hit a plateau. Future innovation will come from extending search in various ways, but not from any fundamental changes in the core.

There’s your answer; relevancy! Powerset plans to one-up Google by providing more meaningful results, which essentially leads to more value for advertisers.

A fundamental difference between Google and Powerset is that Google’s system matches specific words within search queries with text in web pages, while Powerset will analyze the actual meaning of words and phrases that it indexes on the Web, analyzing the entire linguistic meaning of the query.

To address the critical challenge of modifying search behavior, Powerset has launched Powerset Labs, a community where users have the ability to provide feedback on the natural language search engine. Powerset invites users to compare results from its platform with those of others, namely Google. Content adjustments will be made based on user feedback. Rather than expecting users to go through an abrupt change in search behavior, Powerset Labs is providing a gradual transition based on a two-way flow of communication between the users and the 70 person team.

Despite my pending access to Powerset Labs, I certainly feel there is potential for Powerset to be a top player in the search world. Nonetheless, Google is a giant more than capable of taking swift advantage if the technology succeeds.