By Jennifer LeClaire / CIO Today. Updated May 12, 2008.
Powerset is offering a new way to search Wikipedia -- with natural-language technology and conversational phrasing instead of keywords like Google uses.
The Powerset tools unveiled Sunday are available in beta and based on patents licensed from PARC and Powerset's proprietary research. The technology, which can be applied to any topic and any domain, reads and extracts meaning from every sentence in Wikipedia.
Unlike traditional search engines, which look for words, Powerset matches the meaning of the user's query to the meaning of sentences. Powerset proclaimed the release is the first step in changing the way users search and use Web content.
"Powerset's understanding of content on pages and the way they are presenting results is interesting. Powerset is organizing context and content in helpful ways," said Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence. "But it only applies to Wikipedia -- Powerset is not indexing the broader Internet. So you can't really get an apples-to-apples comparison with broader search tools."
A Different Way to Search
While a direct comparison with Google may not be possible, Powerset offers some statistics to consider. The tool searches content from leading free-content providers, including more than 2.5 million Wikipedia topics in English. For many questions, Powerset returns answers from Freebase, an open, shared database of the world's information.
Powerset's search-results page includes a cadre of features, including Factz, dossiers, answers, semantic highlighting and a minibrowser. When users enter a topic query, Powerset assembles a summary of Factz extracted from pages across Wikipedia. Powerset also creates a summary of information found in Freebase and Wikipedia to give users a quick overview about a topic.
The most relevant search results are highlighted based on the meaning of a user's question, and a result can be expanded in a minibrowser to show the snippet in the context of the full Wikipedia article.
If a user types in a question, such as "What did Salvador Dali paint?" Powerset delivers up images of his paintings, along with a title link users can click to read more about a specific work of art. And a Powerset dossier for Benjamin Franklin, for example, offers a brief bio extract from Wikipedia, a fact sheet, and other key pieces of information in tab form.
The Next Search Frontier?
The rumor mill is already churning around Powerset. Microsoft has been named as a potential suitor in the wake of its failed Yahoo acquisition. Sterling said a Microsoft-Powerset merger makes sense for both companies.
"Powerset has better search for Wikipedia that will be useful for many people today and they may be able to take on similarly structured content databases and categories like that over time. But it's going to take a lot of investment for them to index the Internet," Sterling said.
"For Microsoft, this might be a very strategic acquisition that allows the Powerset team to do their business with the funding and freedom that Microsoft will bring," he concluded. "Microsoft could own something which arguably is the next generation of search capability."