A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Thoughts on the Microsoft acquisition

(The usual disclaimers: my opinion only, not my current or future employers)

When Powerset began a couple of years ago, a lot of commentators called us — and still do call us — a would be Google killer. This, despite repeated comments by senior staff that this wasn’t what we were about. As a company, Google is hard to beat. Our goal was audacious, but not that audacious. Our goal was to build a better search experience: to use natural language technology to provide better search results, both by having a better understanding of web documents as well as user queries.

But natural language technology has always only been part of the mix. We have, from the beginning, seen ourselves as doing “keywords plus”; that is, we have always planned to do what the other search engines do (keyword search, link analysis, blah, blah, blah), but add on top of this signals coming from parsing and semantic understanding. For example, we’d like to do as good a job as Google (say) on queries like ‘powerset microsoft’, but do even better on queries such as ‘Who acquired Powerset?’ and ‘Which company did Microsoft just buy?’ and everything in between.

What I didn’t realize when I joined the company is how some of the same technology would create innovations in the user interface, too. Powerset’s ‘Factz’ are a nice addition to the standard search page, and our ‘snippets’ are the best in the business. When I first typed in ‘stars of BSG‘ in the Powerset search box, I was floored by the beauty of the results.

So I think we met our audacious goal: a better search experience. Microsoft seems to think so; after all, they bought the company.

And here’s the thing: we were bought by Microsoft. Microsoft’s market cap is still 90 billion dollars greater than Google. If anyone is able to capitalize a little ol’ startup like Powerset to make us a big player in search, it’s Microsoft. In fact, it’s clear (to me at least) we have a new mission, which is just the old mission the pundits wrongly labeled us with at the start: As a search company, our mission is now to beat Google.

Interesting times ahead.

3 responses to “Thoughts on the Microsoft acquisition

  1. Pinku July 2, 2008 at 10:19 am

    Congratulations! It should be very exciting to now have access to MS Search’s infrastructure. Google is very good, but my parents get poor results because they only type in 1 or 2 keywords. Hopefully Powerset+MS will work better for them. Good luck.

  2. Gerard July 2, 2008 at 11:49 am

    I certainly saw it coming, and I think it makes a lot of sense. Hopefully, it won’t be too painful to get integrated into the hive. Resistance is futile.

  3. Mark Nielsen July 3, 2008 at 8:01 am

    When I read the subject line above, I thought this was a little sci-fi experimental piece you were doing… an informal five-year-plan by way of projection to “Future Will”. Little did I know.

    And I see Gerard has already beat me to the best sci-fi reference/tease. Nevertheless, I will repeat the well-wishes and congratulations.

    I had a less than successful Google search myself today, which put me in mind to try out Powerset. I still didn’t find out what I was looking for, but that has more to do with me being a moron, and the person I’m looking for (Eva Sparks Taylor) being a nobody.

    Lastly, now that you’re this big deal (by association, at least), can I have a job? ;-)

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