Google on Search: 'Natural Language works when it isn't'

Is Google vulnerable in search?
Written by Donna Bogatin, Contributor on
Is “Natural Language” the magic search bullet that will dethrone the Google search kingdom? 

Powerset, a search start-up in “semi-stealth mode,” is now licensing Natural Language patents and technology from Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the New York Times reports

"Powerset hopes the technology will be the basis of a new search engine that allows users to type queries in plain English, rather than using keywords."

As part of my 2007 “predictions” series to start the new year, I tested Powerset’s touted “transformative consumer search engine” and analyzed the Powerset value proposition. 

I reported my findings in “Is Google search vulnerable in 2007?,” concluding that Google will not be unduly concerned about Powerset’s seemingly power search moves. 

Google, in fact, believes “Natural Language (only) works when it isn’t.” 

I recently spent an evening at the NYC Googleplex and spoke with Adam Bosworth, Vice President of Engineering, about Google’s search philosophy (see “Google’s Adam Bosworth to NYC technologists: Speed rules”). 

Bosworth underscores that Google’s search prowess stems from NOT treating search as a Natural Language problem. He proudly notes that Google “ignores” prepositions in search queries. 

Bosworth asserts that the Google “religion” includes treating search as a “fuzzy” problem: “One big text box, type here,” keywords only please, because:

When humans are presented with the ability to type in English sentences, they expect a human level of comprehension.

Bosworth is confident that fuzzy problem resolution “works really well” in search because “choices are expected anyway and the magic is just ranking.” Search ought not be treated as a natural language problem, because there would be no room for error, Bosworth believes. 

Searching over “large sets of stuff,” such as “filtering all links on the Web,” is a “big win," with the time-saving “magic” of Google today, Bosworth puts forth in Googley fashion.

Imprecision is better than nothing and searchers "don't know if we are right," Bosworth says. We make educated guesses and people are pretty forgiving, he happily concludes.

ALSO: Can Google buy its way to future success?

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