Blog, Semantic Intelligence

SemTech 2009: Semantic Search

In an event where new buzzwords like, “cloud”, “linked data” and “shared ontologies” prevail, the moment has finally come for a rising star (which some think is already on the brink of falling): semantic research.

Yesterday, Carla Thompson (Guidewire Group) conducted a “Semantic Search” panel in which representatives from search giants took part: Scott Prevost from Bing’s Powerset division, Andrew Tomkins from Yahoo, and the renowned Peter Norvig from Google. Also participating were Riza Berkan, CEO of Hakia, William Tunstall-Pedoe from True Knowledge and Tomasz Imielinski of the revived (for the third or fourth time now)

Here is a nutshell version of some of the highlights from the Question & Answer session:

Carla Thompson: What makes your engine different from the others? the ability to give answers (extracted from structured and non-structured sources) to questions formulated in natural language. This statement was found to be rather amusing to the audience because just a couple years ago, had repositioned itself as a traditional keyword engine, in an attempt to make people forget about the shoddy performance of its previous Q&A engine released in the late nineties.
Powerset/Bing: the ability to understand the user’s intent and to organize the pages based on this intent.
Google: the ability to provide a set of information which is complete, accurate and fast.
Hakia: the ability to define a ranking based on credibility and not on the popularity of the sources.
True Knowledge: the ability to provide high-quality answers to direct questions by extracting such answers from structured (databases) and non-structured (texts) sources.
Yahoo: the URL’s ability to make semantic sense, see SearchMonkey, which allows results to be seen in a different way.

Carla: Why focus on semantic research when the public doesn’t seem to demand it (nor understand what it is)? normally, a winning product doesn’t originate from public demand, but from the ability of a company to anticipate needs that the average user can’t sense yet. Increasing the precision of answers to specific questions, such as we are doing, has a value for the user. The user will recognize this value once he/she has experimented with research of this kind.
Google: why innovate if something works? Because people don’t realize what can be achieved, so they are happy with what they have. However, when they see new features which can improve their experience, they don’t hesitate to welcome them with enthusiasm.
Powerset/Bing: the ability to answer questions and present complex information in a clear and precise way is valuable to users. Our outlook hasn’t changed after we were bought by Microsoft. We still continue to focus on in-depth content analysis and provide precise answers to users’ questions thanks to disambiguation, which objectively, we are the only ones to offer.

I do not believe that this feature is currently present in Bing.

Hakia: we aren’t the only ones offering this, but we do everything from scratch, including an ontology which is non-dependant on language and noticeably improves performance in terms of precision, something that every user needs.
Yahoo: what Ask said was right. We are already evolving to anticipate the competition. Today, thanks to semantics, we display information in a different way and the users’ response is decisively positive.

Carla: Is it possible to objectively compare two search engines? yes, and there are simple ways to do this. For example, the characteristics of a search engine should allow the user to search “the top 10 songs of all-time” or the same phrase, but put “ten” instead of “10”, and have the results come out the same (but they don’t always do). Or, inserting “Tom Cruise” and “Tom Cruise actor” should give the same results, but instead, the results in general are worse with the addition of information. We at Ask invest in assuring that a search engine can respect these standards.
Hakia: it is possible to perform objective tests, even if, in the end it is the user who chooses one search engine over another.
Powerset/Bing: there are ways to conduct test. In terms of level of semanticity, my fellow colleague from Ask is correct, but it is important to add other criteria as well, like for example, the capacity to extract relations.
Yahoo: it is very difficult. Our research shows that users are very conservative and tend to reject small changes. We think that changing the presentation of the results based on the search objective is very important and must be a criteria for comparison.

Carla: Which is better: traditional or question & answer search engines?

True Knowledge: in terms of input, there shouldn’t be any difference in the results if the user inserts a question in natural language or in keywords. The excellence of a search engine is its ability to provide precise answers.
Google: cut and dry answers are not always best. Everything depends on the question. For example, if someone is interested in knowing how meditation improves their lives, receiving a series of informative content is probably better than a cut and dry answer.
Hakia: offering the opportunity to ask questions is important. A search engine must be able to understand the question and continue to improve in situations in which the initial results are insufficient.
Yahoo: the notion of supporting the user is important, but continuously trying to provide an answer isn’t enough to improve the search. What is needed are new types of interfaces.
Powerset/Bing: yes, question & answer engines are better, but only for mobile applications or for certain types of requests.

Here is the last question that Carla Thompson wasn’t able to ask due to time restrictions: Is semantic research more important for the business market or for the consumer market?

In the market of business search engines, semantic research identifies concepts and relations (who does what), therefore, it is more important. Businesses and so-called knowledge workers already know this. Although semantic research has become a bit less popular in the consumer market, it still takes the prize as an important aspect in the business search engine industry.


Author: Luca Scagliarini

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