Powerset Launches Itself Directly Into the Toilet

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a “semi-stealth” startup spends 2.5 years, hires ~200 people and gives them all new MacBook Pros, takes untold millions in multiple rounds of VC funding, makes a bunch of noise about being the next generation of search and then launches with a search engine that basically re-indexes Wikipedia and not much else. ROFLOL, right?

Not if you’re Powerset its not. This is exactly what they’ve done.

As far as I can tell, their burn rate can’t be any less than ~$21MM/year. This is counting 200 people at an average $100K/year salary and 1,000 small EC2 instances for a year. I’m pretty sure they are using more EC2 instances and lots of their people are making more than $100K/yr in downtown San Francisco, but I’m being conservative here. This doesn’t seem that bad until you realize that their revenue is $0/forever thus far. Conservatively, they’ve probably burned $40MM already building the product as it currently stands. Geez, that’s a lot. Google got something useful up and running for $100K.

And where is that product? Discussing it on Twitter today, my boy Cliff Moon (a Powerset engineer), sent me a link to show how good the results were. Here is that link:


That’s a pretty awesome result, I have to admit. Direct and to the point and right with the info you’d need to win that bar bet. However, I replied back with this link, pertinent to some work I’m doing currently (and something that Wikipedia definitely has an article on):


Not so much.

Now, this little exchange proves nothing. The real thing that struck me was that every result I searched for was basically a re-ambiguated list of Wikipedia results. Powerset claims to be using Wikipedia and Freebase as its base data for now so that makes some sense. However, I took a look at Freebase and it appears that most of Freebase is Wikipedia data, too! Thus, one could (semi)facetiously claim that the powerset of Powerset is {Wikipedia}. This is not great for them. I don’t really switch search engines for this little incentive. Why would I want to use Powerset when Wikipedia already has its own search engine? If that fails I can always hit Google and pare down the results to wikipedia.org, which I’m sure is what a lot of power-Wikipedia users already do.

The larger question is whether or not people would switch to Powerset. If it were an order of magnitude better, yeah, I think they would. However, the Powerset I’m seeing is nowhere near as robust or helpful as Google is today and those guys aren’t exactly standing still over there in Mountain View.

As well, I would question whether or not the question-based interface is as useful for everyday searching as the keyword-based interface of the current crop of search engines. Perhaps I’m just ingrained to that method by now, but the question-based interface seems clunkier and is definitely slower and less flexible than the keyword-based interface. There’s just more ways to query an engine based on a set of keywords than there is if you have to formulate a question to do the same job. I can see how a question-based interface would be superior in certain cases, but in general? Doesn’t seem so to me.

On the advertiser side, the question-based interface brings problems there, too. Today’s search engines allow engines to buy keywords in conjunction with the ads they want to display when said keywords are queried. How is Powerset to build a CPC engine on top of a question-based engine? Are advertisers expected to have to guess at the questions Powerset’s searchers are likely to query? That seems to me to be an order of magnitude more difficult than today’s keyword-guessing-game, which is already hard enough for the advertisers as it is.

Most of the “questions” I ask to search engines don’t have one paragraph answers. When I’m researching, I want to quickly skim a bunch of sites that relate to my general query topic and then get down deeper and deeper as I learn more. Only once I’ve done that might I have some “questions” that I could properly formulate for consumption by Powerset. Am I to assume that Powerset would have me use Google or MSN for the first 80% or more of my researching? I hope that’s not their goal or their VCs are taking an acid bath right now.

I can’t remember being this underwhelmed from such an overhyped product before. Powerset really let me down. If this is the next generation of search, I’m sticking with the current generation, thank you very much. As the eminent Internet sage Ted Dziuba would say: FAIL. Google’s probably throwing a victory party in the volleyball courts right now. I really hope that Powerset gets its act together and makes me look like an idiot for posting this, but after today, its looking to me like that will be a very tough proposition, indeed.