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Not-Just-A-Search-Engine Powerset Launches Beta

Posted by: Rob Hof on May 12, 2008

After a couple of years of anticipation, the upstart search engine-plus Powerset is launching on Monday to the public in limited form—limited not just in being in beta test but for now limited in particular to searching on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia and the open database Freebase. It’s perhaps the most high-profile of the startups looking to one-up Google with easier, more precise, or more in-depth ways to help people find what they’re looking for online. No one’s going to one-up Google as a business anytime soon. But after trying out Powerset for a little while, I do think it’s bringing some interesting new thinking to finding stuff online.

Powerset employs so-called “natural-language” search, which aims to allow people to use more natural queries instead of what Powerset CTO and cofounder Barney Pell calls the “grunting pidgin” of keyword searches. Much more than that, Powerset’s engine parses the actual meaning of words. As I explained in my story last September:

Powerset’s system will analyze the actual meaning of words and phrases that it indexes on the Web. It then will analyze the linguistic meaning of the query and find the best matches between the two—theoretically, at least, producing more meaningful results. “Our system reads every single sentence in every single document and extracts meaning from them,” says Powerset Chief Executive Barney Pell. The method is based on what’s known as natural-language processing, which Powerset developed partly in-house and partly through a licensing agreement with PARC, Xerox’s (XRX) famous Palo Alto Research Center.

Using Powerset’s method, a searcher could ask, “What companies did PeopleSoft acquire in 2002?” and potentially get more on-point search results than from typing in mere keywords such as “PeopleSoft acquisitions 2002.” Using Google, that query also brings up mentions of Oracle’s 2004 acquisition of PeopleSoft. Another advantage of the Powerset approach is it gets to the meaning of words, so queries for one word will fetch results that contain words which are synonyms. Google’s keyword searching generally won’t do that.

The much-hyped company’s launch was upstaged a bit over the weekend by rumors floating around the blogosphere that it might get bought by Microsoft, assuming Google doesn’t try to make a run at it first. CEO Barney Pell has declined to comment on that, though he can’t be unhappy about being in the middle of a potential bidding war between Microsoft and Google. That said, Ashkan Karbasfrooshan at points out that if it does sell this early—way before any revenue and even before the public has had much of a chance to try it out even in its current limited form—perhaps it is mostly hype.

I don’t actually think so, after trying it out a bit. What you notice immediately when searching on something, whether it’s in the form of a question or the usual keyword combinations, is that Powerset’s engine does in fact recognize the meaning of words. And that can make a huge difference in helping you find what you are really looking for.(I’d provide some specific examples, but the Powerlabs demo site wasn’t working late Sunday, at least not for me, but you can try it yourself now. And as usual, Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land has a great analysis.)

Powerset also has added some serious bells and whistles to its results page, including (from its press release):

* Factz – When users enter a topic query, Powerset assembles a compact summary of interesting, and sometimes surprising Factz, extracted from pages across Wikipedia.

* Dossiers – Powerset creates a summary of information found in Freebase and Wikipedia to give you a quick overview about a topic.

* Answers – For many questions, Powerset automatically assembles an answer list from sentences in Wikipedia™ or data in Freebase.

* Semantic Highlighting – The most relevant search results are highlighted based on the meaning of users’ question.

* Minibrowser – A result can be expanded to show the snippet in the context of the full Wikipedia article.

So what is Powerset if it’s not really a search engine, as Pell takes pains to insist it’s not? “We don’t have a name for it yet,” he says. “This is actually a new category here—search engine/reader/explorer/browser.”

Hm. That can mean it’s either a really new, new thing, or the company hasn’t really figured out what its most valuable features are. In any case, I think that very uncertainty over just what Powerset is may slow its adoption, because people will need to try it out and figure out the best ways to use it. And, of course, Powerset eventually will need to prove its engine can scale to the whole Web.

So while I think Powerset has a lot of promise, it’s got a long way to go before it comes even close to challenging Google—which, of course, is already wa-a-a-ay more than a search engine itself. But it’s kind of refreshing at a time when Google’s dominance only seems to grow that some folks are still taking a stab at making search better.

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Reader Comments


May 12, 2008 04:28 PM

i think that would be a great move for msn seach


May 12, 2008 04:44 PM

I spent 5 minutes on Powerset and ran into so many mistakes that made me conclude that this yet another web site farce.

Brian Maser

May 12, 2008 05:01 PM

I think MSN or Google should also be considering Cognition @ Cognition's Semantic Natural Language Processing (NLP) technologies add word and phrase meaning and understanding to computer applications, providing a technology and/or end-user with actionable content based upon semantic knowledge. This understanding results in simultaneously much higher precision and recall of salient data within the universe of possible results. Cognition's Semantic NLPTM makes technologies and applications more human-like in their understanding of language, thereby resulting in more robust applications, greater user satisfaction and new capabilities available for exploitation. On the Web in particular, powering applications with Cognition's semantic understanding technology drives these applications ever closer to Web 3.0 (the semantic Web).

Cognition - Giving technologies new meaning.TM

Cognition Technologies, Inc. ("Cognition") is a next generation Semantic Natural Language Processing (NLP) company, based in Culver City, CA.

What is Semantic NLP?

Semantics is the sub-field of linguistics that is devoted to the study of meaning, as expressed by words, phrases, sentences, and even larger units of speech or text.
Natural Language Processing (NLP) is a sub-field of artificial intelligence and computational linguistics. It studies the problems of automated generation and understanding of natural human languages by computers.
Cognition's Semantic NLPTM is technology that "understands" word and phrase meanings within context in modern computer applications. Cognition's mission is to make its clients' technologies and applications more human-like in the understanding of language and more profitable.
Cognition's Semantic NLP has been in development for over 23 years by Dr. Kathleen Dahlgren, Cognition's co-founder and CTO, and a team of linguists and computer scientists. Cognition's technology employs a mix of linguistics and mathematical algorithms which has, in effect, taught the computer the meanings of virtually all the words and frequent phrases within the common English language. Semantic Natural Language Processing is superior to common pattern matching that is found in most search engines and text-interaction tools because it focuses on the understanding of word and phrase meanings within context. No other commercially available natural language processing technology comes close to Cognition in its breadth and depth of understanding the English language.

Cognition's Semantic NLP technology contains one of the world's largest computational dictionaries. It includes:

506,000 Word Stems (the base forms of a word)
536,000 Concepts
17,000 Ambiguous Words - the most frequently used words in English language
191,000 Phrases
Over 4 million semantic contexts
76,000 synonym sets
Cognition's place in the world related to the "Semantic Web" (Web 3.0) and Google
Cognition employs semantic technology to delve into the meaning of words and phrases, and unlike others who are trying to make the Semantic Web a reality through hand-tagging, such as Web Search, Cognition applies its Semantic NLP to other technologies to give these products and services a differentiation and competitive edge.

"We look at what we're doing as a significant component to the Semantic Web," said Scott Jarus, Cognition's CEO, "Our focus on semantically enhancing other technologies means we're not competing with Google, Yahoo! or other consumer Search engines. Indexing the entire World Wide Web ourselves is not currently on our business roadmap. However, we might become a semantic component of someone else's application which may index deep content on the Web similar to the examples you can see on our Website."

Scott Jarus
Chief Executive Officer

Scott joined Cognition Technologies in 2006 as an investor and then as its CEO. Mr. Jarus has more than 25 years of management experience in the telecommunications and Internet industries, beginning with a company that built one of the world's first public packet-data switching networks. Prior to joining the Cognition, Scott was President and chief executive of j2 Global Communications, Inc. (NASDAQ: JCOM), a profitable billion dollar market cap company whose signature product, eFax®, served more than 9.5 million customers with a local presence in more than 1,500 cities in 25 countries on 5 continents. Preceding j2 Global, Mr. Jarus was President and Chief Operating Officer for OnSite Access, the premier building-centric Integrated Communications Provider (voice, data, Internet and enhanced services) serving businesses in 22 markets throughout North America. In addition, he served in various senior management positions at RCN Telecom, Multimedia Medical Systems (which he co-founded) and Metromedia Communications.

Mr. Jarus serves on the Board of Directors of and Ironclad Performance Wear [ICPW.OB]. In 2005, Mr. Jarus was named the National Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year for Media/Entertainment/Communications (and Los Angeles Entrepreneur Of The Year for Technology in 2004). He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Kansas.

Kathleen Dahlgren, PhD
CTO / Founder

Dr. Kathleen Dahlgren is the Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Cognition Technologies. She began her career as a professor of computational linguistics at Pitzer College of the Claremont Colleges and then worked for IBM at their Los Angeles Scientific Center, focusing on building a "natural language understanding system." Dr. Dahlgren has a Ph.D. in Linguistics and a post-doctorate in Computer Science from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has published a number of scholarly articles on the subjects of linguistics and computer science, and is the author of Naive Semantics for Natural Language Understanding. She is the co-author of Cognition's seminal patent (1998), and she received the Small Business Innovation Award from the U.S. Army in 1995. Currently, she is also an adjunct professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Howard Oliver

May 12, 2008 06:11 PM

We are very active in Web2.0 sector using search engines and other sources to build inbound links to our client sites as well as building conversations on the net to build communities of interest around brands (see our blog The idea of a tool that combines a search engine/reader/explorer/browser sounds very cool to us. Google has its limitations.

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