Thursday, June 26, 2008

Cruising the Mall: Microsoft Scoops up Powerset for Universal Search

It seems like only a few weeks ago that I was blogging about semantic search startup Powerset's soft-launch beta. In fact, it WAS only six weeks ago that we were covering Poweret's soft launch of new semantic search technology. But in that six weeks Barney Pell's crew got in a ton of good PR and a few meetings that have already resulted in a USD 100 million exit into the hands of Microsoft, according to VentureBeat. It wasn't so many years ago that Barney was a part of the bumpy exit of WhizBang Labs and its Web mining technologies. This time around his team was well ahead of the burn rate and blessed with both a good idea and good timing. With tons of cash on hand after their war chest for a Yahoo acquisition Microsoft was ready to vent by spending some large (or, for them, small) at the deals mall to pump up its search for more advertising revenues.

Given Powerset's ability to parse natural language questions as well as to provide "factz" topic clusters that could draw in related content, the target for Microsoft has to be the revived portal as much as Google's leading search engine. Already Microsoft's search engine provides rich search results that emulate Ask's more user-friendly approach to search-driven content aggregation, but Ask still manages more meaningful responses based on natural language queries. Better front-end parsing and clustering of results terms from Powerset's technologies would certainly help Live to get more relevant and rich results that could help to build a larger audience, though how Powerset's technology will fare in absorbing Web content lacking the encyclopedic style of it's trial Wikipedia content remains to be seen. On most test queries using natural language questions one finds Google to be at least or more relevant in its results than existing major search engines, so even with new semantic technology Microsoft has its work cut out for them.

A better match for Powerset might be found on the enterprise side of Microsoft's offerings, where its recently acquired FAST enterprise search technology may benefit from some extra semantic search and clustering mojo - and find somewhat more structured content sources against which to apply semantic algorithms. That's not to say that Powerset won't succeed with open Web content, but in general semantic search technologies are most easily tuned when they're digesting documents with relatively similar styles. It would seem that this would be easier to tune to an individual enterprise's needs overall than to a world of Web content that could be in any shape at any time.

A better question might be why Microsoft hasn't considered purchasing if they are so interested in natural language queries. With millions of pre-formed questions already in its WikiAnswers database many natural language questions map very neatly to its answer sets. In other words, sometimes the best answer to a full-sentence is a person who understood the question in all of its semantic details and has already provided the answer. This is far from a goof-proof solution to semantic search, but it's an approach worth considering as a valuable supplement to semantic document parsing.

In any event the Powerset set now finds itself in the enviable position of having sold their ship before it ever went down the launching track into the waters. That's certainly more than a few publishing portals can say these days. Congratulations to Barney and all of the other rocket scientists at Powerset - it pays to have a technology that solves a problem that companies with deep pockets are ready to get their hands on.
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