We Will Survive the Linguistic Shift

Keywords or questions: is the difference really that remarkable?

**Keep this in mind: Anyone familiar with the game of Jeopardy knows that an integral part of getting the answer right is the ability to quickly frame it as a question….

A couple of sources I’ve recently read have tried to make a valid argument against any seamless implementation of a semantic or natural language web. An arugument? People are trained to keyword search. I hesitate to consider really the root of their beef–are they saying we won’t make the shift from phrases to questions? That’s the bare bones difference between a keyword (Google-type) search query and a natural language (Hakia, Powerset) search query. Query being the actual thing you type into the search field, the “prompters” intended to stir up the information for which you’re looking.

Okay, I know that journalists and pundits are in the biz of creating talk, the more controversy the better, but an arugment like this–that we’re already patterned to work in a keyword inspired environment, just seems lame to me. It also relegates our species back to that of caveman. Remember the Jeopardy rules…

Steven Pinker, in his brand new book, The Stuff of Thought, argues that even as children we are driven to instinctively emulate simple to complex language patterns even well before we have formal instruction. Linguistic pattern as a right of belonging, as part of our human-ness, is elementary, it is fundamental in our collective DNA.

So, NO, we’ll catch on quickly if and when a natural language engine rises to the top. AND if our businesses rest on it, you better believe the learning curve will be short-lived. I mean look at AdWords….when it first launched only the very maverick web marketers and SEOs took to it–were able to instantly rope and tie it. But now, just a few years later (and, yes, many millions of businesses make their money from it) it’s an absolute essential component in any savvy business strategy. If people can learn: how to build a marketing strategy with AdWords, how to navigate and sell everything on eBay, and shop for anything online, then casting a search query in natural language, framed as a question, seems quite….um, natural.

True Knowledge: Natural Language Search Engine

Making a natural language search engine for the masses–keep it on the DL.

True Knowledge is an internet search company that has produced as a key product, a new natural language search engine, although they don’t say that. Also missing is “semantic.” I only mention this because it seems to me thattrue knowledge new search True Knowledge and Freebase before it, have put high-level techno terms like these at arm’s length. Maybe it makes them more palatable, maybe it is less intimidating, maybe everyday folks will be a lot more inclined to add such a search engine to their daily search habits if it looks and smells not too unlike another.

Here’s what True Knowledge proposes to do: deliver “direct” and concise answers to natural language queries. For example, TK’s example “is jennifer lopez single?” received a direct “NO” — parsed from the data existing in the SE’s database, plus highlighted results for the natural language query, PLUS ordinary keyword search results in case TK is unable to find the information–“at least you’ll have the results you’d have on any other given day.”

Right now the engine has just launched a private beta version, so it’s anyone’s guess how long it will be before she’s open for business. But if you’d like a preview of the API and the technology behind this newest search engine effort, then take a look at the site. There’s a video introduction that gives about a 7 minute run-down of the features and benefits of True Knowledge.

How Keywords May be Replaced by Old Fashioned WORDS

In the Google, Yahoo! universe keywords have become a commodity–the monetary muscle that drives search development, much the same way as Big Oil has driven energy–up til now. A couple posts ago I referred to the next big push in search–natural language. This sounds way academic for most commoners, but really what it means is this: your next gen search engine may actually be more finetuned to word meanings than your current search vehicle.

I’m a big time Google-head. I do nothing but online research day in and day out. My search capabilities have matured in the last couple years. I’ve gone from one and two-word search queries to whole sentences. For example, today I wanted to know about a rumor I’d heard about a high-end grocery store going in, so I typed in: plans for fresh market chapel hill nc. I was immediately returned a page of results that included two local newspaper articles with the keyphrases: fresh market and chapel hill. I consider that a successful search. But have I become keyword-centered?

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When I checked into the Powerset blog this morning I found one of the posts most illustrative of the language flexibility that the search engine will have. The example of a Powerset search query for who proved fermat’s last theorem? returns results that not only correspond to the terms fermat and last theorem, but also understand the question is about a “who.” Not very impressive maybe until I plugged the exact same phrase into a Google search box. My results only corresponded to the keywords fermat’s last theorem, with no apparent recognition of the fact that I had asked a question about a “who.” Results were not nearly as concise as those delivered by Powerset. This, then, is a small indicator of the linguistic muscle being built into next gen semantic web.

Next Wave: Natural Language Search–Alternative to Keyword Centric Search Engines

What if what we’ve come to know as search were supplanted with an alternative? You’d still enter words to conjure the cyber world to commence search, but maybe it would ask for more natural language structures. Powerset, and others that have engaged in semantic web search, are on the leading edge of–hopefully–transforming search processes to a more “natural language processing.”

Google delivers search engine results pages (SERPS) when keywords and/or key phrases are entered into the query field. This manner of search is fast becoming second nature. We, humans, have progressed from one-word, monosyllabic keywords–when flexible and widely available search engines appeared, less than a decade ago–to multi-word, keyphrases choreographed to elicit an imagined search engine response. I enter a phrase that I have learned will likely be “understood” and acceptable to the cyber search forces, but is it natural and intuitive language?

This is not the first time semantic search has been trialed, but Powerset’s efforts are focused much more seriously–less marketing scuttlebutt and more academic vigor.

Might we have trouble breaking with our keyword habit, though? Just when you think you’ve conquered the keyword challenges, launched a keyword-inspired ad campaign through the now ubiquitous AdWords, our language will once again deconstruct.

Is it too late to just go back to basic linguistic instinct? Can the recipe dish up the same opportunities as the current commoditized keyword-centric system?