Archive for Semantics

Searching for Answers in Search

There has been an influx of announcements in the search world lately – Wolfram Alpha, Bing, and Siri among the most high profile – so our upcoming panel at SemTech 2009 really couldn’t come at a better time. Set for next Wednesday, June 17 at 8:30am at the San Jose Fairmont, our Executive Roundtable on Semantic Search will pick some of the biggest brains in the business to share their insights on where search is now, where it should be going and what role semantic technology should play in this complex sector.

With both Microsoft and Google represented, we’re sure to discuss Bing and its new place in the search game. Yahoo and will share their experiences as legacy sites that must constantly innovate to stay viable. And up-and-comers True Knowledge and Hakia can give perspective on what it’s like to battle the behemoths in a space that is always hungry for more. In short, we’ve got every aspect of the search game covered so you won’t want to miss it.

If you’re not already registered for SemTech, do so now. Friends of Guidewire Group get a $300 discount on a full-conference pass. If you’re only interested in semantic search, the conference is offering a special Semantic Search Day pass for $195. This gets you access to our panel, a one-on-one Wolfram Alpha interview by Nova Spivack, and access to the exhibit hall.

Hope to see you all in San Jose next week!

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The Continuing Evolution of Twine

By now, you’ve no doubt read multiple posts on Twine opening to the public with version 1.0. Though breaking news isn’t my strong suit, I have a special affinity for Twine and had to put in my two cents.

I’ve been using Twine for over a year now and wrote about its beta launch back in March. In that post, I called it “an incredibly deep, incredibly smart app that hasn’t yet found its ultimate form,” and said that “in order to ‘get’ Twine, you need to jump into it with both feet and play around.” The former statement still holds true, though version 1.0 takes several big steps in a positive direction. The latter, though, is completely off the table with this launch, a fact that will no doubt take the product further into the mainstream.

There is no longer a barrier to entry with Twine, as there is with so many other online services. I mentioned in a recent unrelated post that “users don’t get the value [of a service] without a large circle of connections and you don’t gain connections without a deep level of involvement.” There is no such problem with the new Twine, which shows you value almost immediately, without signing up. Just plug in a few interests on the homepage and Twine builds your interest feed. Theoretically, one wouldn’t even have to sign up for Twine to get some value out of it; use it as a search engine on steroids. But that would leave its real value on the table, ignoring its ability to organize your content in ways no other service today can.

Chris Morrison at VentureBeat wrote an excellent piece on Twine today, calling it a “modern-day Dewey Decimal System.” For a detailed description of how exactly Twine works, I recommend Chris’ piece, but his Dewey Decimal label gets right at the heart of the site’s real potential. Yes, at its most basic, it’s a bookmarking service, but the broader view reveals a mass categorization and organization system that requires little effort from the user.

Ultimately, I’d like to see Twine as one giant repository for online content – almost another level of the Internet. And that’s not unachievable either, when you consider the services that could plug into Twine. Let’s say that Twine develops plug-ins/partnerships with Facebook, MySpace and other walled-garden environments. You’d still interact socially on Facebook, play your Scrabble games and write on walls. But you would also have at your fingertips in Twine every note, status update, photo, and chat, automatically tagged and categorized and easily searchable. Say you’re planning a trip to Italy and are able to use Twine to find relevant content submitted by other users, alongside personal anecdotes from your Facebook friends. Read the travel article on top restaurants in Italy and see your best friend’s pictures from her Italian honeymoon, all in one place. I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, as walled-garden integration is obviously not available in Twine’s current version. But I’m trying to lay the groundwork for where I think Twine could go, an important point for many who still don’t ‘get’ the service.

The path to an “a-ha” moment in Twine looks different for each user. Mine came with my private Twine, into which I dump notes on startups I meet with. I need to recall companies, people and technologies quickly in daily conversations and there aren’t any services that know my content as Twine does. My key complaint here is that I want the search refinement to improve. It’s not wholly intuitive, can be a bit slow, and I’d like more filter choices. But even with those nits, I’m still able to zero in on the precise information I need. And as a bonus, I also get other applicable articles, comments and conversations from which to draw.

Twine continues to innovate on an impressive trajectory and even more feature upgrades are planned for the next several months. As you delve further into the service and watch its tagging capabilities, think about the other online services you use frequently and what that content would look like in Twine. It could mean a whole new era in information interaction online.

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Top-of-mind thoughts on Microsoft and Powerset

There’s a reason I love emerging technology so much: over the course of one hour, the entire landscape can be turned on its head. The rumor out of VentureBeat this afternoon, that Microsoft will acquire Powerset for $100 million next month, has produced the predictable memes: Microsoft is desperate after the Yahoo debacle; Powerset overhyped itself to bankruptcy and needs a bailout; Powerset only searches Wikipedia and we like Google just fine, thanks. While neither party will confirm the rumors, it now seems likely that something significant will happen in the semantic sector over the next couple of months. Having analyzed Powerset and semantic search extensively, I think we should keep a couple of key points in mind beyond the arguments over valuation and hype machines. Read the rest of this entry »

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Search Takes a New Shape

Back in the old days – or the ’90s as some call them – we utilized the Internet as an information resource. What’s that phone number, where is that address, where can I buy that product – you had concrete questions and were no longer required to speak to a human to get answers. Sure, there were bulletin boards and Usenet forums for discussion but they primarily involved coding arguments and game walkthroughs. The Internet wasn’t truly upended into a community, and all that that entails, until just a couple of years ago. It was then that the inundation of bloggers collided with social networking and lifestreaming to produce a perfect storm of content. (And when I say lifestreaming, I mean the trend of putting as many pieces of our life online as possible – books we’re reading, music we like, etc.) We’ve now backed ourselves into a corner online, raging against the indundation of content even as we scroll through our fifth page of FriendFeed updates. We recommend well-written articles about navigating through the noise, right after sharing 25 items in Google Reader.

The logical next step in this technological journey is to therefore prune, to make our time online more meaningful and relevent, no matter how small the nugget of information. Whether I’m setting out to qualify findings in a drug discovery experiment or wondering when Amy Winehouse was last arrested, I want the most reliable, relevant answer in the shortest amount of time. The problem is no longer whether the information is out there but rather how we can get to it quickly and accurately.

It’s against this background that I’m seeing a gradual evolution of the semantic search market. Read the rest of this entry »

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Winding down SemTech and an exciting addition

My brain is beginning to melt from all of the deep-tech conversations here at SemTech. During the DEMO Road Show in Austin last week, I tweeted, “Just when you’re feeling smart, you meet a guy who built a server farm in his basement.” (That’s a story we’ll have to save for DEMOfall.) It’s essentially been my feeling this week as well, where the collective brain power in this building could likely have us colonizing Mars by next year. I consider myself reasonably well versed in semantic technology but this crowd puts me to shame. If you’re looking for an environment to really get your brain buzzing about the future of technology, make SemTech a priority next year.

I have a raft of new companies to follow up with in the coming weeks, so keep an eye on The Guidewire for new analysis on where semantics is heading. And of course we continue to gear up for DEMOfall – the first set of demonstrator invitations went out earlier this week – so you could say our plates are beginning to tip over with work. In our quest to feed the market with reasoned analysis of the startup landscape, we needed to expand our team. We needed someone super sharp about emerging tech, an early adopter with a sharp eye for innovative companies and products. We also needed someone who could take The Guidewire to the next level. Chris and I haven’t had the time to devote the creative energy necessary for building an engaging blog atmosphere.

With that, I am thrilled to announce Guidewire Group’s new research intern… drumroll please… Corvida from SheGeeks! Corvida will be with us through the summer, assisting Chris and I in all manner of ways: finding innovative startups to profile, fleshing out and updating The Guidewire, podcasting for, writing the occasional blog post, and much more. Fans of her SheGeeks and ReadWriteWeb posts, don’t despair; she’ll continue to blog regularly on both sites. I’m excited for both sides of the relationship. I hope we’ll offer Corvida a leg up into the business side of emerging technology and I know she’ll provide us with some much needed education on blogosphere success.

Join me in giving a warm welcome to Corvida. And watch this space!

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Geekery Fiefdoms at SemTech

For all my stewing about presenting an effective panel here at SemTech, I think we did it in spades this morning. I’m biased of course but if the amount of active, engaged audience members and lively conversation following the panel was any indication, Taking Semantic Technology to the Masses was a success. Thomas Tague, Josh Dilworth, Mark Johnson and I had an excellent discussion about the mess the semantics space is currently in, marketing-wise, and how to dig it out and shine it up for mass consumers. We spent the first 25 minutes parsing the problem – an indication of just how deeply semantics geeks can gaze at their navels – and about 20 more minutes discussing possible solutions.

Thomas coined a term I’m stealing that sums up the semantics space perfectly: geekery fiefdom. It’s a great description of a sector that is striving to achieve traction in the consumer space, but continues to pepper its messaging with semantic buzzwords and discussions of the plumbing behind it all. As Thomas quoted one of his customers in the financial sector, “If you have to explain it, I don’t want it.”

We came to a couple of good conclusions worth mentioning:

1) Companies in the semantic space need to take a portion of their impressive brainpower and turn it toward marketing. With literal rocket scientists on the benches, finding innovative, well-packaged messages around a product and company philosophy should be a piece of cake.

2)UI, UI, UI. Mark mentioned this several times and he should know; Powerset has one of the best out there right now. Once you’ve parsed out the complex algorithms of your semantics company, spend some time on a great design. An easy-to-use, intuitive interface can vault a product to the head of the pack.

3) Play nice and share. (I’m reminded of that annoying book/poster from the early 90s – Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.) It’s simple but true. If semantics companies were more open to partnering with each other, the resulting applications would without a doubt take this industry to the next level. The close-to-the-vest attitude is understandable in semantics, as some very sophisticated and complex platforms and algorithms are at stake, but I think we’ve reached the point where it’s time to open up a little.

Everyone seemed to agree, including members of the audience, that semantics is poised to graduate; that it’s time to dust off this fiefdom and take it out into the countryside among real users. When and how that will happen is still undecided but I’d bet on later this year or early next.

That’s it for the moment from SemTech. I’m huddling with Hakia in a bit and can’t wait to hear their news, then it’s time to concentrate on the French Tech Tour for the next 12 hours. More tomorrow…

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Search redefined

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.

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