Well, it’s finally time. After months of private alpha and beta testing, Powerset is finally launching (as I write this, it’s still in beta — you should see a change in the next day). Tipped as natural language based search to beat Google, I’ve been testing the $12.5 million start-up for a while and I admit to being impressed. Through the ‘Powerlabs’ I’ve been checking out a number of different search apps that promise to translate real English into search results, instead of forcing everyone to work through Keywordese, the Pidgin English that everyone uses to access Google, Yahoo! or whatever search engine is your flavour of the month.
Currently the demos which work on Wikipedia and Freebase have had some fantastic reviews. As TechCrunch says
“When I tested the service I had something very similar to the ”Aha!“ feeling that ran through me the first time I ever used Google. In short, it is an evolutionary, and possibly revolutionary, step forward in search.”
I didn’t get this feeling. A lot of my searches worked but they did not come back with the single answer I was looking for. Also, remember that true Natural Language based search is the holy grail of search. Which is another way of saying it may be almost completely unobtainable. However, it remains a lot better than a lot of the Google, Ask or Yahoo! searches I do regularly. The power of the search itself in its capability to handle relatively complex queries with good grace. For instance, “Who killed JFK?” and “Who killed Princess Diana?” are both pretty easy but questions like “Will there be a recession?” or “Show buildings by Gaudi” or “How many dimensions does string theory postulate?” or “What are the ingredients of pastitsio?” are a bit trickier.
PowerSet has two huge hurdles to overcome. First, it is a classic AI ‘model world’ which only covers a small subset of what people really want to search (i.e. the web) and this has taken a long time to get right. Second, it still needs a good marketing and product approach — great technology doth not a killer app make.