Powerset Launches. Verdict: Meh.

by Jesse Farmer on Monday, May 12, 2008

Powerset, the much-hyped natural-language search company, has finally launched a public product: a showcase for its search technology that "enhances the Wikipedia experience." It's live right now on its homepage, so go check it out.

Are you back? That sound you heard is the technology world shrugging in unison. For all the hype Powerset has gotten over the last year and a half this showcase leaves a Chicxulub-sized gap between expectation and execution.

Even ignoring all the press, it's not that impressive on the face of it. Using their example queries as templates it took me about five seconds to find queries which not only returned appropriate results on Google but simultaneously returned nonsense on Powerset.

On a personal note, I really wanted to like Powerset. The people working there are all super-smart and I know they've put a lot of blood and sweat into this launch. But I have to be honest. If someone over there reads this just know I do it because I want to see the company launch a great product.

A Failure of Execution

Let's start by diving into a little Google vs. Powerset one-on-one.

Query Winner
Who is on Google's board? Powerset Google Powerset
Who is on both Google and Apple's board? Powerset Google Google
How did Hitler die? Powerset Google Google
How did Adolf Hitler die? Powerset Google Tie
What is the longest suspension bridge in the United States? Powerset Google Google
When did the United States enter Iraq? Powerset Google Powerset
Who was the tenth President of the US? Powerset Google Google

You get the idea. I tried to pick questions that Powerset is designed to answer, i.e., fact-based trivia easily found on Wikipedia.

Some of the failures are pretty egregious, honestly. Searching for "Who was the tenth President of the US?" fails to return a single relevant result in the first page of Powerset whereas Google's entire first page is relevant, even limiting Google to searching just Wikipedia.

In other cases it appears Powerset has a poor understanding of synonymy, returning irrelevant results for "How did Hitler die?" but returning the correct answer for "How did Adolf Hitler die?" Of course, Google returns the correct answer in both cases.

Guys, this is supposed to be the exact area where you excel. What gives? You're not even living up to your new, lowered expectations.

A Failure of Marketing

Marketing is a two-edged sword. The net effect of good marketing is to solidify your brand in the minds of consumers. This is good if you execute, but can also make it difficult to change course later.

Powerset fell into this trap. They started with ambitions of being a Google-killer, but reading their about page now it sounds more like they're aiming to be the Google-enhancer. This is a respectable business, of course, but it is hard to swallow after a year and a half of being promised a revolutionary new search paradigm.

They might be repudiating the Google-killer label now, but here's an excerpt from a February, 2007 press release:

”The time is right to tell the world about the game-changing technology we’ve created,” said Ron Kaplan, Powerset Chief Technology and Science Officer, who previously created and managed the Natural Language Research Group at PARC. "I am glad to join Powerset’s team of world-class linguists and search engineers to help this technology revolutionize the way people access information."

Too much marketing before a product launches can back you into a corner and in Powerset's case it will be difficult at this point to avoid being compared directly to Google in the press.


Powerset was started in 2005 and has been using Xerox PARC's natural language processing technology for over a year, now. In that time they've been pumping out press releases talking about how they will revolutionize not just search but the way humans and computers interact.

What do they have to show for it? Not much, judging by their latest product. As a search tool it is more interesting than useful, shining in only a few, pre-selected cases. The advantages over Google are so minimal and the defects so large that I would never consider using this as my main means of searching Wikipedia, let alone the Web at large.

To me this product smells like a tech demo, not a fully-featured product launch, intended to convince someone outside Powerset that they really are producing something amazing. There are rumors that Powerset is looking to sell or raise another round of financing, and have recently hired David Wehner, a managing director at Allen & Co.

This launch might be enough to convince investors to re-up or buyers to fork over the dough, but speaking as an end-user I'll take another look at what Powerset has to offer when it can tell me who John Tyler was.