Powerset joins Live Search

We’re excited to announce that we’ve reached an agreement to acquire Powerset, a San Francisco-based search and natural language company.

Powerset will join our core Search Relevance team, remaining intact in San Francisco. Powerset brings with it natural language technology that nicely complements other natural language processing technologies we have in Microsoft Research.

More importantly, Powerset brings to Live Search a set of talented engineers and computational linguists in downtown San Francisco. This is a great team with a wide range of experience from other search engines and research organizations like PARC (formerly Xerox PARC).

We’re buying Powerset first and foremost because we’re impressed with the people there. Powerset CTO and cofounder Barney Pell is a visionary and incredible evangelist. When he introduced our senior engineers to some of the most senior people at Powerset — Search engineers and computational linguists like Tim Converse, Chad Walters, Scott Prevost, Lorenzo Thione, and Ron Kaplan — we came away impressed by their smarts, their experience, their passion for search, and a shared vision.

That shared vision is to take Search to the next level by adding understanding of the intent and meaning behind the words in searches and webpages.

We know today that roughly a third of searches don’t get answered on the first search and first click. Usually searchers find the information they want eventually, but that often requires multiple searches or clicks on multiple search results. Two specific problems are the most common reasons for this:

  • Differences in phrasing or context between a user’s search and the way the same information is expressed on webpages. Search engines don’t understand today that “shrub” and “tree” are similar concepts. We don’t understand that “cancer” sometimes refers to a disease and sometimes refers to a horoscope and when a query or a webpage refers to which.
  • Lack of clarity in the descriptions for each webpage in the search results. Sometimes a result looks relevant from its short description on the results page but turns out to be not so relevant when you visit the actual page. As a result, searchers frequently click results and then rapidly click back when they realize they aren’t what they’re looking for.

These problems exist because search engines today primarily match words in a search to words on a webpage. We can solve these problems by working to understand the intent behind each search and the concepts and meaning embedded in a webpage. Doing so, we can innovate in the quality of the search results, in the flexibility with which searchers can phrase their queries, and in the search user experience. We will use knowledge extracted from webpages to improve the result descriptions and provide new tools to help customers search better.

Working with our existing Search team and other Microsoft teams that focus on natural language, Powerset will help us address all of those problems and opportunities.

We’re looking to add even more talented engineers to the San Francisco team to accelerate our shared progress. If you’re interested in joining the team, drop us a line.

We’ll have more to say about the things we’re doing in understanding searches and webpages through natural language technology in the coming months. In the meantime, please join me in welcoming Powerset to Microsoft!

Satya Nadella, Senior Vice President, Search, Portal, and Advertising

See also: Microsoft to acquire Powerset

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