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Microsoft searches for meaning with Powerset buy

Beats Google. Semantically speaking

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The rumors were true. Microsoft is buying Powerset, the San Francisco-based semantic search startup.

The deal was announced late this morning on the official Live Search blog. "Powerset brings with it natural language technology that nicely complements other natural language processing technologies we have in Microsoft Research," wrote Microsoft senior VP Satya Nadella.

According to Nadella, the acquisition is part of Microsoft's grand scheme to "take search to the next level by adding understanding of the intent and meaning behind the words in searches and webpages."

Based in part on patents licensed (exclusively) from the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Powerset's natural language processing technologies made their public debut in early May, when the company unveiled a semantic search engine just for Wikipedia.

With semantic search we're talking about more than just indexing keywords. A semantic search engine does its darnedest to index what those words mean. And in much the same way, it seeks to grasp the meaning behind your queries, hoping to pinpoint exactly what you're seeking.

But the Wikipedia engine - which indexes about 2.5 million pages - is just a proof of concept. Like Microsoft, Powerset wants to bring semantic search to the entire web. Thus the tie-up. Powerset has plenty of confidence in its technical talents, but it wants Microsoft's money.

"With any startup, the challenge is to take the seeds of an idea and grow it into a viable company. At Powerset, we transformed our idea into a world-class semantic search platform, demonstrating the future of search with our Wikipedia search experience," reads a post from Powerset's Mark Johnson. "But building a large-scale semantic search engine is expensive, requiring an engineering effort and computing resources beyond what most start-ups could ever imagine.

"Because our goals around improving search align so well, Powerset has decided to team up with Microsoft. We believe that this is the fastest way to bring our technology to market at a large scale."

Faster than teaming up with Google? Maybe so. Whereas Microsoft has committed wholeheartedly to the semantic search idea - Venture Beat says it paid $100m for Powerset - Google is still weighing its future options. At the moment, Page, Brin, and crew continue to trumpet the power of PageRank. At least publicly.

Is this the best way for Microsoft to challenge Google's search dominance? We shall see. But it seems a more sensible approach than bribing people to use Live Search.

Powerset will join Microsoft's existing Search Relevance team, but the 63-person startup will remain intact at its San Francisco headquarters. ®

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