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Welcome to Microsoft Pri0: That's Microspeak for top priority, and that's the news and observations you'll find here from Seattle Times technology reporter Matt Day.

July 1, 2008 at 11:45 AM

Microsoft buying natural-language search company Powerset

Reports have been circulating since last week that Microsoft was buying some horsepower in search. No, not Yahoo. The new purchase is Powerset, a company spokeswoman confirmed this morning.

San Francisco-based Powerset released its first product — a search tool for Wikipedia — in May. The company aims to push ahead in search with natural-language recognition technology. Here’s what Powerset says about its Wikipedia product:

“In the search box, you can express yourself in keywords, phrases or simple questions. On the search results page, Powerset gives more accurate results, often answering questions directly, and aggregates information from across multiple articles. Finally, Powerset’s technology follows you into enhanced Wikipedia articles, giving you a better way to quickly digest and navigate content.”

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s senior vice president of search, portal and advertising, provides details of the acquisition on the official Live Search team blog.

— Powerset will join Microsoft’s core Search Relevance team and remain in San Francisco. The talent at Powerset (including PARC vets) was a big draw for Microsoft.

— Powerset’s natural language technology will complement similar efforts of Microsoft Research.

Powerset is hiring more search talent and will continue to do so under Microsoft ownership. (No surprise there given Microsoft’s aggressive hiring campaign company-wide, but particularly of search experts in Silicon Valley.)

— No financial details were provided. VentureBeat had early reports of Microsoft’s courtship of Powerset late last month, including a rumored purchase price of more than $100 million.

Microsoft’s leadership has been hammering for months — actually years — on the theme that “10 blue links” is not the end of innovation in search and is, in fact, an inadequate model. “We know today that roughly a third of searches don’t get answered on the first search and first click,” Nadella writes.

Here’s how he describes the two most common contributors to this problem:

— “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.”

Solving the problem means improving a search engine’s understanding of a searcher’s intent. No small task.

From Powerset’s perspective, joining Microsoft means resources.

“The biggest feedback that we got when we launched our first product was: this is great, but when and how will we get Powerset go beyond Wikipedia? Microsoft accelerates our ability to move Powerset to the entire web faster than anyone could have imagined,” wrote Mark Johnson on Powerset’s blog announcing the deal.

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