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Update: Forget Jeeves, ask Powerset

By / June 29, 2008



Last month, I blogged about Powerset, the first Google competitor that really nails natural-language search. VentureBeat reports that Microsoft just purchased the Silicon Valley start-up at the rumored price of $100 million. To follow up on this news, here's my introduction to Powerset from May, with some fresh analysis on what this buyout means.

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Remember Ask Jeeves? The search engine branded itself as the web’s trusty maître d’. Type in your query – feel free to phrase it as a question – and Jeeves suggested where you could find an answer. But Jeeves turned off many users by directing them toward rather irrelevant websites. Since then, most search engines – including the Jeeves’ replacement, Ask.com – ignore all of those who, what, when, where, and whys. They just pluck out keywords.

Along comes Powerset. This startup website actually reads what you wrote. The search engine encourages you to write the way you speak, and then uses your phrasing to search entries in Wikipedia.

Type in “Who started Google?” and Powerset’s first response is portraits of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google’s co-founders. The labeled pictures link to their Wikipedia entries. If that wasn’t quite what you wanted, Powerset offers other links, just like any other search engine.

Try “When did Napoleon invade Russia?” and the search engine highlights “June 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia.” A search for the same phrase in Google comes up with several sites that have the correct answer, but you need to click through to find it.

Google has incorporated a few instant replies – answers that don’t require you to link to another page. The search engine field can convert measurements, calculate exchange rates, and answer “What is the population of Chile?

But if you rephrase the question and ask Google “How many people are in Chile?” the search engine doesn’t answer “16,284,741,” as it did before. Powerset, on the other hand, answers both versions with the correct number.

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