Natural Language Search Not a Priority for Google

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Some segments of the search engine world, such as Ask and Powerset, are gambling on the idea that the future of search is in natural language search, which essentially allows people to conduct searches using actual, useful sentences instead of possibly vague keywords. So what does one of the world’s most popular search engines think about natural language search, and do they believe that it is also the future of searching?

In a recent interview with MIT’s Technology Review, Peter Norvig, the director of research at Google, shot down the idea of implementing natural language search capabilities at Google. In essence, he characterized natural language searching as not being a big advance, and more so a lower-level form of search that doesn’t require much understanding of how words go together:

“We think what’s important about natural language is the mapping of words onto the concepts that users are looking for. But we don’t think it’s a big advance to be able to type something as a question as opposed to keywords. Typing “What is the capital of France?” won’t get you better results than typing “capital of France.” But understanding how words go together is important. To give some examples, “New York” is different from “York,” but “Vegas” is the same as “Las Vegas,” and “Jersey” may or may not be the same as “New Jersey.” That’s a natural-language aspect that we’re focusing on. Most of what we do is at the word and phrase level; we’re not concentrating on the sentence. We think it’s important to get the right results rather than change the interface.”

I think he’s actually got a really good point. In working at a library, I frequently assist patrons in their research endeavors, including online searches. You would be surprised by the number of people who do not understand the intricacies of searching, or the idea that formulating their queries in different ways will yield different results. This is what I think search engines like Ask and Powerset are attempting to capitalize on – the demographic that doesn’t really know how to conduct a good, thorough search, or casual searchers who just want to type something in and be spit back an answer.

I try to do my part, and attempt to educate people on the theories and methods behind searching.That way, they will be able to help themselves and they won’t need to keep coming back to me every time they need to find information. So I guess that is my round-about way of saying that I agree with Norvig’s assessment that it’s far more important to understand how words together, and to focus on fine-tuning those results, rather than focusing on the lowest common denominator.

You know that old saying, “Knowledge is Power”? Well it’s true, and I see it all the time. When someone who may have been confused about search engines and searching before finally ‘gets it’ and understands what they are doing, it’s empowering to them.

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  • If a search engine cannot understand the question, then why should we trust the answer?

    Norvig and company are off base on this one.

  • Rick

    I think Michael has a problem with analytical thought. You have to find the article that addresses the question amongst the search results, and then determine the reliability of the information…. duh!

  • Even though what Google say is correct, it surprises me to be coming from them. Google who are always looking for ways to make search better and easier. The fact is, I think no matter what you do, there will be people sending human like questions. Stuff like, “I want to buy a new nokia phone”, or “2 bedroom 3 star hotel in nivada”, and they will get disappointed if they don’t find the result, and could leave.

    If another search engine gives them what they want, they would say “Great… this is what a search engine should be” and at that time, it could be too late for Google to catch up. At least for that sort of users.

  • Maybe so Basher, but I bet Google will know soon enough should the public start searching in that manner. They will have plenty of time to change their mind on the subject considering they field the vast majority of search queries.

  • Rick: “You have to find the article that addresses the question amongst the search results…”

    Michael: RIGHT. if you cannot understand the question, your answer isn’t worth much.

    It’s a fairly straightforward concept.

  • I have to agree with Google’s stance on this. IMO, “Natural” search feels more un-natural than using specific keywords to find your information.

  • I didn’t take Peter’s quote as “we don’t think that natural language is important” but rather “the part of natural language that’s the biggest impact right now is understanding the senses of words and how they interact, because that’s useful for the backend processing as well as processing the user’s query.”

    Maybe I’m projecting though. 🙂

  • Julie

    I don’t think he meant it wasn’t important either. Rather, he said it was LESS important, which implies that there is something else more important and pressing than being able to type in a full sentence to conduct a search.


  • You cannot get the right results if you take the position that the queries work better one way than another.

    Maybe a few further comments from Mr. Norvig himself will help clarify the matter.