by Mike Masnick

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?

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    -E, Oct 5th, 2006 @ 7:46pm

    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.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 5th, 2006 @ 8:40pm

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    StillSearching, Oct 5th, 2006 @ 8:46pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 5th, 2006 @ 8:57pm

    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).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 5th, 2006 @ 9:21pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    walt foster, Oct 5th, 2006 @ 10:15pm

    natural language search

    I support the idea.


    Who coined the word biogas?

    Who was active in the energy field during 1972?

    What was the first civilian grassroots resource organization in Montana focused on energy?

    Why does poverty still exhist today?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Paul, Oct 5th, 2006 @ 11:09pm

    dot dot dot

    "Why does poverty still exhist today?"

    Clearly because the public education system has failed you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Spartacus, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 1:40am

    RE: dot dot dot

    searches suck because they can't understand the the searcher

    and clearly because someone made a spelling or grammar mistake that proves without a doubt that they are a complete imbecile unworthy of ever posting anything online.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Me fail english?, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 2:00am

    RE: dot dot dot

    Don't start your sentence with a conjunction.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    that guy..., Oct 6th, 2006 @ 7:00am


    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    SMB, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 7:12am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Matt Bennett, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 7:42am

    I, for one, would much preferrr to just type in my wuestion or sentence as I would say it to a person. THAT does seem more natural.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    PhysicsGuy, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 8:19am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    DG Lewis, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 11:20am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    EvGen, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 1:26pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Joseph Hunkins, Oct 7th, 2006 @ 4:50pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Alan, Jun 29th, 2007 @ 11:25am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    oregonnerd, Jul 4th, 2008 @ 10:16am

    Re: RE: dot dot dot

    Good point. But then you'd be effectively voiceless.
    P.S. 'tain't worth gettin' bothered about much, bro'. And yes, both and a number of other vernaculars are natural to me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    life insurance girl, May 31st, 2009 @ 10:27am

    Yahoo and MSN VS Google

    Does anyone else think that a merge between yahoo and msn will create a new search engine that will outbest google?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.