What Problem Does Natural Language Search Solve?

from the just-wondering dept

Matt Marshall recently posted a story about a new search engine looking to raise a lot of money at a very high valuation, which has created quite a bit of buzz as people argue over whether or not the company has a chance, or deserves such a high valuation. Matt followed up with more details on the company, though he still expresses some reasonable skepticism. Like many people, my first reaction on hearing about it was that I can’t remember a year that’s gone by without someone claiming to have come out with a revolution in natural language search. However, when it comes to search engine news, no one can go through the history and explain why something is a bad idea quite like Danny Sullivan can. He lists out all the attempts at natural language search, and shows how each one failed (in some cases, miserably). He also points out that the problem with natural language search is that it requires everyone to change their behavior. As with any startup, when you’re looking at their chances, the big question to ask is pretty simple: what problem does it solve? Plenty of people have figured out how to search with keywords. In fact, many of us find it more natural and faster than trying to construct a natural language query. So, while all the natural language search engines that come along insist that searches suck because they can’t understand the the searcher, it’s not clear that’s the real problem. When people want to use a search engine, they want to find what they want. That means being able to search quickly. Dumping two or three keywords into a box is always going to be a lot faster than figuring out the natural language equivalent. So, perhaps someone can enlighten us. What is the problem natural language search solves?

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “What Problem Does Natural Language Search Solve?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
-E says:

I used to support a natural language search produc

Search engine diaglog [paraphrased due to poor memory]:

I am in the Nth grade and I want to do a research paper for school about the florida manatee.
[gets back irrelevant results]

research on the florida manatee
[better, but still poor results]

[this was the last query…. seems they were forced pretty quickly to keyword searching….]

I always thought that the real need for applied technology was not in search, but in helping the user flush out their real question.


Anonymous Coward says:

i don’t agree… if implemened right, natural language search is very powerful.

For e.g.

I want to find out why pres bush is ineffective… with the key word search, search engine will spit out all the pages with bush and ineffective which might not contain the answer to my quesitons… on the other hand, a natural language search engine will give me the pages which has the information about why bush presidency is not working even if the pages doesn’t have bush and ineffective in them

StillSearching says:

We definitely need something better than what we h

It’s not so much that we need “natural language” search but something more than simple “page ranked query string matching”. For example, I am looking for the answer to the following question: “What makes a cell decide that it is a good time to divide itself into two? Is it something based on timing, or some chemical signal or pressure inside the cell or what?” I have tried various keyword combinations and nothing has quite answered it.

Anonymous Coward says:

I agree that the real problem is not the search query, but the index. Someting may be a relevant document but not have the search terms imbedded in it. Imagine someone asking you a question. Would you use the exact same words in your answer? Not always. This is the essence of the search problem, and what “natural language” usually claims to fix (and fails).

Anonymous Coward says:

My attempt to bypass keywords

I’ve got a test site up at http://www.ittybittysearch.com

If you type in “isohunt” and then click on the “similar sites” link, you get other bittorrent sites. A normal keyword search just brings up pages that have “isohunt” in them.

That said, it’s mainly good for finding one trick pony or category killer sites. Not very good at answering complex questions.

that guy... says:


OK folks. Thanks for all the examples of why natrual language search will work.

Autonomy does that. We implemented that in our company… good stuff.

They can even read the contents of video and audio files and index the words spoken in the files. Imagine being able to jump right to the spot where the words were spoken is a video or audio file… Autonomy can do that.

Their customers:
Sun Microsystems

Telecom Italia

Her Majesty’s Customs & Excise












Taylor & Francis

Federal Express

US State Department

Nissan Motor

Milward Brown Precis

Federal Government of Canada

UK Home Office

Her Majesty’s Customs & Excise

Hutchison 3G

Harvard Business School


Britvic Softdrinks



Macmillan Publishing

Allianz Life Insurance Co

Swiss Army

Parliament of Singapore



Singapore Police Force

Sony Music

GSA Advantage!

Kaiser Permanente


Stanford Business School

Johns Hopkins


Standard Life Insurance



Allstate Insurance

State of Washington

Napa Valley County

Texas Department of Transportation

American HomePatient



Sharper Image

General Motors




Hutchison 3G

Sun Microsystems


America Online

Lockheed Northrop Grumman

Dow Chemical Company


Draeger Medical

Sutter Health

Kenyan AIDS Clinic

General Electric

University of Washington

State of Minnesota

World Wildlife Fund

Most are leaders in their space… they cant all be wrong.

Google can learn something from these folks.

SMB says:

I assume nobody is suggesting that everybody should start using natural language searches instead of keyword searches. The natural language search would be solving the problem that there are people who want to use a natural language search. My wife almost always uses complete sentences in searches on Google. It’s a little embarrassing…

Someting may be a relevant document but not have the search terms imbedded in it. Imagine someone asking you a question. Would you use the exact same words in your answer? Not always.

What would be ideal would be if a search engine would match up the search term/phrase used with the keywords in the resulting page of a successful search. The next time somebody enters a similar search phrase, those pages that answered the first user’s query would be given more weight to the second user. It would involve somehow guessing if a search was successful or not, which may or may not be possible.

PhysicsGuy says:

The real issue

isn’t the search engines we currently have right now… it’s the people using the search engines. I don’t know how many times I’ve had someone tell me they can’t find “such and such about such” online, and i google such, such and such and what they’re looking for is within the first few pages. on a rare occasion i have to do a broader search for something and do a little perusing through pages, but really, it takes 10 minutes tops to find ANYTHING AT ALL ONLINE with todays search engines.

DG Lewis (profile) says:

What it solves

Natural language search solves the problem of information retrieval as opposed to “search”.

Earlier today, I needed to find what time trains leave New York Penn Station for Metropark on October 25. To do so, I googled “new jersey transit”. Google was smart enough to give me, as an option under the njtransit.com website, a deeplink to the rail schedules. But I then had to go to the schedules, select New York Penn Station as the departure station, Metropark as the arrival station, and the Weekday schedule, and then submit the request to get the schedules I wanted.

That’s fine – but the real question is “what time do trains leave new york penn station for metropark on october 25,” and it would be quicker and easier to enter that question and have it give me the schedules I wanted.

Alan says:

Re: What it solves

The trouble with your transit question is that the page probably doesn’t exit. The database has the info and the search engine can only get you to the gateway page. I typed “yyz arrival flights” (Google and Yahoo) and got the link to the gateway page in the first result. Then typed in the departure city and got the result with updated arrival time. Hard to beat. Tried the same searches but with the departure city included and didn’t get the result on the 1st page of either engine. Too much detail confused them into returning too many results.

EvGen says:

One other point to be made in favor of natural language search is that it serves the purpose of the so-called “advanced search” interfaces to most search engines far better than trying to teach the general public about boolean search terms or regular expressions.

I am quite at home using the more advanced search features of most search engines to pull out the specific details I am interested in, but my parents wade through pages and pages of crap trying to get to the document they are looking for. This is good for google et al. because the user is exposed to more ads, but only because of a failure of their interface to serve anything but the most primitive queries for the general user.

Joseph Hunkins (profile) says:

Natural Language? Naturally!

Powerset, even by the name, is going to offer a lot more than natural language capability. The holy grail is to harness AI in ways Google, Yahoo, and MSN (with their amazing neural net approach) have yet to do. Also significant is that most people on earth don’t use online searches yet. This will change and online search will be the overwhelming choice of an info hungry world. When it does, natural language is the obvious approach to queries.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...