Search leaders debate semantics

Everyone agrees that semantic search technology--the notion of correctly assessing a searcher's intent--holds promise, and maybe money.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
3 min read
Ask.com's Tomasz Imielinski discusses semantic search as Microsoft's Scott Prevost and Google's Peter Norvig look on. Tom Krazit/CNET News

SAN JOSE, Calif.--If those chasing Google have anything to say about it, search on the Internet is going to become more about a conversation than an exchange of keywords.

Panelists from the four major search engines--Google, Yahoo, Bing, and Ask.com--joined Web search start-ups TrueKnowledge and Hakia at the Semantic Technology Conference to discuss the rise of semantic technology as the engine behind the still nascent Internet search industry. Semantic search, or the idea of divining a user's true intent from how they enter their queries and how Web data is structured, is an unfamiliar concept to the majority of Web surfers who tend to think Internet search is actually pretty good as it is.

It's not, according to Tomasz Imielinski, executive vice president, global search and answers at Ask.com. "Most users don't know how good search can be," he said, drawing an analogy to those who were satisfied with their portable music options until the iPod came along.

The W3C is devoting an entire week to the concept of semantic technology, which involves Web publishers and search engines working together to structure data in a way that can be presented in a more appealing way than the "ten blue links"--a dirty term in the search industry these days--with which most searchers have grown familiar.

Yahoo has been banging this drum for a few years, introducing products like Search Monkey to help Web publishers start organizing their content around semantic standards, said Andrew Tompkins, chief scientist at Yahoo Search. "Today on any major search engine, you'll see structured information about a restaurant," he said, basic things like phone numbers, address, or maybe a link to a map of its location. All of those things require agreement on standards to make it happen.

But semantic search is also about improving the ability of search engines to analyze the meaning of plain text on a page, said Scott Prevost, general manager and director of product at Microsoft's Powerset division. A search engine that knows how to take a query and produce exactly what a person is looking for on the first page of results will prove attractive over time, he said.

The goal of all this work is to make search more intuitive, more like asking a friend or colleague a question, said Riza Berkan, CEO of semantic start-up Hakia. "We believe search is going to move to more conversational techniques," he said.

That's music to Ask.com's ears, of course. The company announced Wednesday that it now has 300 million question and answer pairs in its database that Imielinkski thinks provide context around searches.

But none of this work on semantic technology has done anything to dislodge Google from its position atop the search world, which actually grew a bit stronger over the past month according to ComScore. Google's Peter Norvig acknowledged the benefits of semantic technology and agreed that Yahoo deserves credit for pushing semantic technology along. He drew applause from the several hundred attendees at the panel discussion when he discussed Google's decision to support RDFa semantic standards, announced last month at Searchology.

Still, there's an economic component to this debate that Google isn't quite buying. None of the panelists brought this up Wednesday, but last year Microsoft's Prevost admitted that the desire to make an end-run around Google's dominance of keyword-based search advertising is what has driven semantic technology research, at least to a certain degree. "If people aren't bidding on keywords, and are bidding on concepts, it could completely change the ball game," he said last August at the Search Engine Strategies conference.

To that end, Norvig argued Wednesday that the idea of conversational search is good for people who aren't quite sure what they are looking for, or who don't quite understand a certain topic. But those who do grasp a topic and want a fast answer are much more likely to use keyword searches, he said.

Corrected at 3:49 p.m.: This post originally misstated the title of Ask.com's Tomasz Imielinski. He is executive vice president, global search and answers. Corrected on Friday, 11:35 a.m., clarifying the W3C did not sponsor the conference.