Will Powerset Pull a Google?

Update: I received an email from a trusted source this morning that reads “…I’ve seen the demo (and spent a fair amount of time with those guys)…The technology is quite good and will certainly help on a non-trivial subset of web search queries. But they definitely have their work cut out for them. The indexing is far more expensive than traditional web search, and that means some real scaling and performance work to do…Can’t say much more without really pissing off the NDA gods, of course…(Oh, and those VentureBeat numbers are wrong about their funding.)”

I haven’t seen a demo of upcoming search engine Powerset yet, but reportedly many people who have are impressed, saying they’d never use Google again.

Powerset wants to let people use natural language when searching, including some words that search engines ignore today (what founder Barney Pell calls “stopwords“). Like most people, I’ve learned to change my language when addressing a search engine. I use important keywords and leave everything else out. Some of these search habits have even overflowed into my personal communications, and I find quick IM and email discussions often look like crazy, meaningless words thrown back and forth. Ten years ago I’d have no idea what those discussions meant. Today, they are effective in getting through fast paced business conversations with people I’m already familiar with.

So while I believe that search is far from perfect today I didn’t necessarily think that the solution was to create a better way for computers to understand what we meant. Frankly, I assumed that we’d continue to do a better job of talking in a way that computers understood, and advances would come in other areas (deep web, better algorithms, rich media search, etc.).

But Pell lays out a convincing argument that natural language search is important in order to communicate meaning and intent. He uses example searches to make his point – “book for children”, “book by children”, and “book about children” are all equivalent to “book children” to search engines today. His core argument is that there may be no way for us to properly express the query “books by children” without using natural language.

Powerset is looking for big money to launch their new engine. Venture capitalists are always the best source of rumors (the best time to hit them up for information is right after they’ve passed on a deal, or have lost it to another firm). If they don’t have a financial interest in the company, loose lips abound. With respect to Powerset, the rumors are that the company is trying to raise $10 million on a $20 million pre-money valuation. That’s a lot of money, but if Powerset pulls a Google, no one will care.