Anyone with even a remote interest in the semantic space has likely experienced the same roller coaster I have regarding Powerset. When I first spoke with Barney Pell over a year ago, the semantic tech sector was an entirely different landscape. I was intrigued by my conversation with Barney and the short demo I saw of Powerset-enabled search. How nifty that the engine knows what I mean by “who did IBM acquire”! But as months went by, we didn’t hear much from Powerset, save a seemingly incongruous Labs announcement. And we heard much from other players in the space. The focus of the semantics community moved away from search to organization – making users’ Internet activity easier to manage – and answering the question of how to take semantics to the masses. Frankly, I had dismissed Powerset as an early mover in the space that had run out of steam. Boy was I wrong.
Powerset’s introduction today of its new Wikipedia search, which also integrates data from Freebase, could have a significant impact on the tech market overall, in that it changes the rules of the search game. Users who experience the incredibly deep, interactive, and intuitive nature of the Powerset search will be even more frustrated with the standard string of result pages delivered by traditional keyword search. Once you’ve dug into the meat of a Wikipedia article with just a couple of clicks, zeroing in on precise actions and entities and going directly to their citations in the article, paging through flat hyperlinks just ain’t going to cut it.
Powerset’s changing of the rules is evidenced by one key statement made by the company: a page of search results, no matter how targeted, is just the beginning of the effort required by the user. Once you’ve found relevant links, you still have to click through to new pages and scour the text for usable information. Powerset’s new way of searching attempts to do some of that work for you; with the scouring and drilling down already complete, you arrive at what you need much quicker.
The Outline feature of the Powerset search is a real gem and I expect will set a new standard for UI in search technology. Having a constant window beside the text as you browse provides an incredibly simple way to jump back and forth between concepts and facts. It could make the browser’s back button obsolete.
What I don’t love about the new search is that it’s currently only on Wikipedia. There are many searches I typed in that can’t take advantage of all this whiz-bang semantic technology. More nebulous concepts aren’t Wikipedia’s strong suit, so Powerset only returns standard results. Example: “Can Hillary win the democratic nomination” returned relevant results but no Wikipedia entry to plumb. So my big “if” with this announcement is whether Powerset can pursue a successful content partnership strategy. If the right publishers, and enough of them, integrate Powerset search into their sites, the long-anticipated threat to Google could finally take shape. No matter the long-term outcome, though, Powerset has raised the bar for search interaction and usability.