Is Google all there is to search?

It’s interesting to see the spectrum of opinion on Powerset, the search startup that just raised a bunch of cash from some high-profile Silicon Valley types including Peter “PayPal” Thiel and Esther “Release 1.0” Dyson (daughter of legendary astrophysicist Freeman Dyson).

Some critics, including Danny Sullivan of Searchenginewatch — who posted a comment on Matt Marshall’s piece at VentureBeat and has more thoughts here — seem to feel that Powerset is doomed, because so many other companies (including Ask) have tried to unseat Google by offering “natural language” search. Others have a “search is broken, so best of luck” attitude, and to his credit Barney Pell of Powerset links to representatives of both camps from his blog.

It’s obvious that in addition to getting some heavy hitters interested in his company, Mr. Pell is a pretty smart guy. He studied symbolic systems at Stanford and then got his PhD in computer science from Cambridge University, and wound up working on AI control systems for NASA’s Ames Research Center, according to this old bio page from there. Matt has some more history in his Venture Beat piece, but it’s clear Barney knows a thing or two.

In other words, he must know that plenty of people have tried the natural-language search model before, and yet he obviously feels that there is still something worth doing there, as he describes on his blog. And who wouldn’t agree that search is somewhat broken? Nine times out of ten, the first page of results from the average Google search is garbage.

If natural language search can help with that, I’m all for it. Of course, one of Mr. Pell’s critics, Steve Bryant, says having a good search engine isn’t enough to compete with Google.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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