PowerSet searches for online niche

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KAI RYSSDAL: You probably realize this back in your subconscious someplace, but a little reinforcement with some numbers never hurts: According to the ratings people at Nielsen, last month Google handled 54 percent of all Internet searches in this country. Yahoo! was a very distant number two at 20 percent.

But the long odds don't deter those who think they can build a better mousetrap. A company called PowerSet is the latest to get into the search business.

Leo LaPorte follows technology in his podast, This Week in Tech. Leo, good to have you with us... When you hear about companies thinking about taking on google, to you worry a little about their sanity -- I mean is it a big David-and-Goliath thing?

LEO LAPORTE: I don't know if it's even close to David and Goliath -- I mean, Google totally dominates the landscape. Just think about how you use the Internet -- what do you do when you search? Google's a verb, for crying out loud.

RYSSDAL: And yet now we have this thing called PowerSet, which we are told is going to sort of revolutionize "plain-language searching." What does that mean?

LAPORTE: Well, if you're going to go up against Google, you've got to find some secret sauce. I mean, Google's been doing this for so long, and there are so many Web sites, you can't possibly hope to compete by building a better database. You have to have something magic. And what PowerSet's doing is, they claim their search engine "understands" language and so will give you better search results by using artificial intelligence. I just want to point out that artificial intelligence has been a horrendous failure since the day the term was coined.

RYSSDAL: Be strategic for me here -- where is Google weak in the search field?

LAPORTE: Google's weak in one particular area: I think Google relies on people trusting them. People are more and more aware of the fact that Google's primary business isn't search, it's advertising. And if people start to feel that Google is aggregating information about what they're doing on the Net -- if they start to lose trust in Google -- that could mean that they will start looking for an alternative. And that is an opportunity for another search engine to come along. The problem is Google does what it does so darn well -- we're just relying on it.

RYSSDAL: Two things strike me -- one is exactly that point, we're so used to just Googling something and calling it a day. But the other one is, and this goes to the plain language part of it, we have become used to using that weird syntax that you adopt when you slap something in that search box. And so we're not really going to turn around to using plain language.

LAPORTE: I think Google has made a point of saying "just type anything you want in there, we'll find it -- you don't have to worry about thinking about the computer, we'll find it." And they do a pretty good job -- even people who have never used a search engine can figure out you just type a phrase in there and Google comes pretty close to getting it. The AI, the artificial intelligence and natural language, really is going to come in when it comes to somebody like PowerSet is understanding more what the intent of a page is. Google, and any search engine, has a tough problem: They have to look at a Web page, which is larded with non-information -- stuff about formatting and program languages and stuff -- and kinda filter through that to find the gist of what the page is trying to say. That's a hard thing to do, and that's where PowerSet might say "we can do that better."

RYSSDAL: Yeah, pretty big "might," though -- I bring you back to the days of AskJeeves... remember that little butler guy?

LAPORTE: Yeah, AskJeeves is a very good example. They're still around, they've been around as long as Google, they've spent a lot of money on advertising. But they're still a distant second. Really, the people who compete well against Google are search engines like MSN and AOL, and that's mostly because they have novice users who haven't yet figured out how to change the search engine their browser uses.

RYSSDAL: How is PowerSet going to know that it's succeeded?

LAPORTE: When people start saying "I'm going to PowerSet your boyfriend." And that ain't gonna happen, I got bad news for you. It's a longshot.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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