Jimmy Wales Unimpressed With Powerset's Wikipedia Search
As startups and established players strive to develop Google-killer search technology, conceptual differences in their approaches make for interesting discussion.
Case in point: Jimmy Wales' Wikia Search and rival Powerset, which is using Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia project Wales founded, to argue that its semantic engine represents the future of search.
During an interview this week, Wales was asked for his opinion about Powerset and he declared himself unimpressed, at least so far.
For starters, finding content on Wikipedia is quite easy, he said. "I find that search at Wikipedia works perfectly fine." Plus, indexing Wikipedia content doesn't pose a major challenge, Wales said.
When Powerset unveiled a test version of its much-awaited semantic search engine last month, Wikipedia played a major role in the marketing push as one of only two Web sites included in the index.
While acknowledging that the scope of its index was extremely limited, Powerset executives said that the engine's ability to -- in their view -- improve Wikipedia search reflects what it will do later for Web search in general.
Wales isn't convinced.
"It's really hard to judge right now [the quality of Powerset's engine] because searching Wikipedia is a pretty easy thing to do. It doesn't present much of a challenge. Wikipedia isn't a very large data set and it's a pretty simple thing to do, to index Wikipedia," Wales said. "So whether their approach is going to be useful on a bigger data set [is hard to tell]."
It will be interesting to see how Powerset's technology evolves, said Wales, but he added that he isn't sold on semantic search technology in general. "I haven't been very persuaded so far by what I've seen about the semantic approach. At least so far, I'm not that interested in it," he said.
According to Powerset, its users do find value in its Wikipedia search. Because Powerset can "understand" the pages it indexes, it can do more than return the proverbial 10 blue links for search results. For example, it can assemble a collection of facts related to the query, as well as summarize the found information. It can also provide direct answers to factual questions.
"Our early users tell us that Powerset's automatic extraction and aggregation of key facts about topics is extremely useful, since that information is often strewn across many different pages in Wikipedia," said Scott Prevost, Powerset's general manager and director of product, via e-mail.
"We've also received a lot of positive feedback about our automatically derived summaries of each Wikipedia page, which helps users to scan a page's content and easily navigate to relevant parts of the text," he added.
Prevost also defended the promise of semantic search, which is designed to extract meaning from the Web pages it crawls, as opposed to focusing on keywords, which is the approach of all major search engines, including Google's.
"Semantic search is in its early stages, and is already showing great promise. The real power of semantic search is not only in providing search results that better align with the meaning of the search query, but also by providing new ways for users to explore and navigate information," Prevost said.
One thing that Wales and Prevost share is the belief that current Web search technology can, and should be, significantly improved.
Wales this week unveiled the latest version of Wikia Search, a search engine developed by his company, Wikia Inc., that hopes to rely primarily on volunteers for building and maintaining the index and determining results' ranking and relevance, in a similar way as Wikipedia did in the online encyclopedia space.
Whether Wikia Search, Powerset and other new entrants to the search engine market will be able to mount a credible challenge to Google remains to be seen, but it will certainly be interesting to see them try -- and, in the meantime, argue in favor of their respective approaches.