Google's Norvig Is Down On Natural Language Search

googleogo4.gifDon’t expect to see natural-language search at Google anytime soon. Despite the buzz of startups like Powerset and, to a lesser degree, true knowledge, Google’s head of research Peter Norvig pooh-poohs the notion that people are clamoring to write full sentences in search boxes. In a Q&A with Technology Review, he says:

We don’t think it’s a big advance to be able to type something as a question as opposed to keywords. Typing “What is the capital of France?” won’t get you better results than typing “capital of France.”

True, true. But he does acknowledge that there is some value in the technology:

We think what’s important about natural language is the mapping of words onto the concepts that users are looking for. . . . To give some examples, “New York” is different from “York,” but “Vegas” is the same as “Las Vegas,” and “Jersey” may or may not be the same as “New Jersey.” That’s a natural-language aspect that we’re focusing on. Most of what we do is at the word and phrase level; we’re not concentrating on the sentence. We think it’s important to get the right results rather than change the interface.

In other words, a natural-language approach is useful on the back-end to create better results, but it does not present a better user experience. Most people are too lazy to type in more than one or two words into a search box anyway. The folks at both Google and Yahoo know that is true for the majority of searchers. The natural-language search startups are going to find out about that the hard way. If Google doesn’t trounce them first.