As had been rumored last week, Microsoft has acquired Powerset, a semantic search and natural language processing startup based in San Francisco for an undisclosed sum said by sources to be in the neighborhood of US$100 million. Microsoft SVP Satya Nadella explains the rationale:
Powerset will join our core Search Relevance team, remaining intact in San Francisco. Powerset brings with it natural language technology that nicely complements other natural language processing technologies we have in Microsoft Research.
More importantly, Powerset brings to Live Search a set of talented engineers and computational linguists in downtown San Francisco. This is a great team with a wide range of experience from other search engines and research organizations like PARC (formerly Xerox PARC).
We’re buying Powerset first and foremost because we’re impressed with the people there. Powerset CTO and cofounder Barney Pell is a visionary and incredible evangelist. When he introduced our senior engineers to some of the most senior people at Powerset — Search engineers and computational linguists like Tim Converse, Chad Walters, Scott Prevost, Lorenzo Thione, and Ron Kaplan — we came away impressed by their smarts, their experience, their passion for search, and a shared vision.
That shared vision is to take Search to the next level by adding understanding of the intent and meaning behind the words in searches and webpages.
There’s more on the technology there and on Powerset’s web site (including this demo video), but the big picture is to offer a better search to users than Google’s in order to whittle away at their share. I would have to observe that Powerset certainly isn’t the first or only company to try to apply semantic concepts or natural language processing to Web search – just Ask Jeeves.