Because the content from Wikipedia and Freebase can be re-published, Powerset can remain relevant after a user clicks on over to a search result, by providing an outline to navigate through the page and a summary of facts. This, of course, isn't something that Powerset could do with copyrighted content, but the company will seek partnerships with publishers to obtain permission, Prevost said. "We think it'll be a situation where publishers will want their content to be served up in this way," he said.
Industry analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence calls Powerset's capabilities "impressive" and particularly likes its search results interface. "What they've created is both a better search engine for Wikipedia and a massive 'proof of concept' for their algorithm and technology," he said in an e-mail interview.
Now Powerset has to prove that its search engine can scale and deliver against an index of billions upon billions of Web pages and serving millions of concurrent end users. "There's certainly potential there to build a better mousetrap, it would appear. But bringing what Powerset has done for Wikipedia to the entire Internet seems an enormous challenge that will take both time and lots of additional resources," Sterling said.
Prevost acknowledges that to do this type of deep processing takes a lot of computational power, although once indexed, retrieving pages' information doesn't pose any special challenge.
Powerset also faces the challenges of a start-up technology company, such as generating revenue and going through growing pains. The company has already had some management upheaval, announcing in November the departure of co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Steve Newcomb and its search for a CEO, as co-founder Barney Pell gave up that post to become chief technology officer. "The CEO search is still in process, but we have a strong internal management structure and board of directors," he said.
Prevost said the company's investors are committed to the company and to seeing that it has the resources necessary to scale up the search engine to the level of those with indexes of 20 billion pages.
Powerset's business model is based on advertising, although the search engine will not serve up ads from the beginning. "There's a lot of cool stuff we can do in the ad space by matching the meaning of queries to the relevance of ads, but that's much more longer term," he said.
The search engine will be limited to Web search at first, although Powerset has contemplated adding specialty engines for things like images and video later, as well as targeting verticals such as health, product reviews and travel, he said.
"We've only shown the tip of the iceberg in language analysis," he said.