Sunday, February 18, 2007

Powerset Counts Coup with Google

A post on John Battelle's Searchblog points to an article on VentureBeat, the latter being journalist Matt Marshall's recently launched online publication that covers developments in the venture capital world.
"Powerset, a San Francisco search engine company, will announce Friday it has won exclusive rights to significant search engine technology it says may help propel it past Google.

"The technology, developed at Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in Silicon Valley, seeks to understand the meanings between words, akin to the way humans understand language — and is thus called 'natural language. . . .'

"The deal is significant because practical use of linguistic technology has eluded Google. . . .

"[ . . . ]

" . . . Powerset could possibly steal a lead if it improves search results by a significant measure with natural language and simultaneously incorporates a near-equivalent to Google’s existing capabilities. Powerset has been hiring lots of Yahoo search experts and others, to help it do that.

"[ . . . ]

". . . Negotiations on the deal, just completed, were so secretive that Powerset’s executives hid a Xerox PARC scientist, Ron Kaplan, in a back room when VentureBeat stopped by for an interview last year. Kaplan, who has led the 'natural language' group for several years, joined Powerset as chief technology officer in July. This is a coup for Powerset, because Kaplan did not respond to some early probes from Google. In an interview, Kaplan said he didn't believe Google took natural language seriously enough. 'Deep analysis is not what they’re doing. Their orientation is toward shallow relevance, and they do it well.' Powerset, however, 'is much deeper, much more exciting. It really is the whole kit and caboodle.' While natural language has been a vexing problem for decades, Kaplan said he believes it is ready for prime-time."
The fact that a heavy-hitter like Kaplan chose Powerset over Google is quite remarkable, as Google has been responsible for a brain drain in the search engine space for quite some time. Of course, the technology is being hyped, site unseen, and as pointed out by Matt at Venturebeat, it also remains to be seen whether people can be convinced to change their keyword-based search behavior.

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