Today marks another milestone for San Francisco based contextual search engine Powerset. They’ve launched a showcase for their user search experience – effectively the search engine minus the web crawl. For now, Powerset queries only Wikipedia and augments results with data from Freebase. The product launch comes just a day after reports that the company is being shopped to potential buyers by investment bank Allen & Co.
I have been able to test Powerset via their labs site for the last few weeks. I wrote about it last month, and the version that just launched is very similar.
There is no way to look at Powerset today and determine if it can be as disruptive to search as Google was when it launched almost a decade ago. That’s because it only queries Wikipedia, and so there is little need for proper ranking algorithms to sort the good from the bad results.
But what user can see is how effective a way it is to gather information quickly. For someone doing research, Powerset effectively removes a number of steps towards getting to the final information. It is particularly effective when the information needed is on many different web pages.
For example, a query on Powerset of “when did earthquakes hit tokyo” yields stunning results. Try this query at Google or even wikipedia to compare – instead of just picking out keywords that are in your query and on a web page, Powerset is actually making some sense of the content included in the wikipedia pages:
The way that Powerset returns queries means that answers are often found in the result snips, as above. They are also structuring a lot of the Wikipedia and (and already structured Freebase) data and inserting it into results. So a search for “Bill Clinton” shows results, but also shows Freebase structured data along with additional query refinements to get to more information. The important thing below isn’t the structured data in the results, its the fact that you can click on the action words and drill down into very specific queries (to find, for example, what bills he signed, or which Supreme Court justices he nominated, or who he slept with).
Powerset is indexing web pages much differently than normal search engines, which generally just record content to match against keyword queries. Instead, Powerset is trying to understand the content on the page so that it can be matched meaningfully to queries later. Even queries that don’t use matching words.
Indexing the web is expensive, though, and Powerset’s way of doing it requires even more time and computing power dedicated to a web page. That’s why they say they aren’t indexing the entire web yet – the company has raised just $12.5 million (plus another $8 million or so in bridge loans from investors). To index the web will require a new round of financing (see the first paragraph above about their sale/financing efforts).
Powerset is has taken a lot of criticism for their goal of trying to redefine how people search the web (including from us). But their lofty goals are what makes Silicon Valley so great – succeed or fail, Powerset is trying to do something pretty spectacular.
The company has also created a demo overview video – see below.