Tech Industry

Schwab to adopt "natural" language search technology

The online and discount broker will add to its Web site a sophisticated tool developed by MIT scientists.

Charles Schwab, the online and discount brokerage, will begin offering a "natural" English search technology this summer to make it easier for customers to find information on its Web site.

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Computer Science developed the technology. The scientists left MIT last year to form iPhrase, which lets people enter search queries using questions that are written in English sentences.

Cambridge, Mass.-based iPhrase said its patent-pending technology interprets a person's question, queries the relevant data sources, and then presents a specific, tailored answer.

Online brokers continue to try to distinguish themselves from one other in an increasingly cutthroat business. At first, offering lower trade commissions helped shake things up in the sector. Then, Net brokers, one after the other, began offering free research, real-time quotes, after-hours trading, and, most recently, wireless trading.

iPhrase's search system may help Schwab further distinguish itself from the rest--at least for a short time.

San Francisco-based Schwab is still the leader among online brokers, with one-fifth of the market share.

"After an extensive evaluation of different approaches to search and navigation, iPhrase emerged as a superior solution to help enhance the Schwab user experience," said Bob Sofman, senior vice president of electronic brokerage at Schwab.

iPhrase's search system may prove especially valuable on financial sites, many of which offer increasing amounts of data that are hard to distinguish by simply using keyword searches.

A customer seeking multiple pieces of information, such as market caps, price-earnings ratios, and revenue figures, for several companies will be able to access that information in a single step by asking a specific question, iPhrase said.