The "highlighter" feature that search-engine Hakia announced yesterday wasn't worth a press release, but it did get me to try the company's "semantic search" service, which is actually pretty cool. As instructed, I asked Hakia three English-language questions:
As promised, I got intelligent results for all (even the last one, which was a trick question). For example, Hakia understood that, when I asked "why," I would be interested in results with the words "reason for"--and produced some relevant ones. If I'm ever in the mood to ask an English language question--and I remember that Hakia exists while reaching for the keys--I might use the engine again.
But therein lies the problem--indeed, the problem for Hakia, Mahalo, Powerset, and the dozens of other companies that are pursuing next-generation search. Contrary to the premise upon which most of these companies are based, I don't agree that current search sucks. On the contrary, I almost always find satisfactory results immediately, conveniently, and with minimal frustration. I also don't find myself wanting to ask the Internet English language questions all that often: It's usually easier to just type keywords. The results (and display) could always be improved, of course, and maybe I'm always missing out on fantastic sites that have just the info I'm looking for, but ignorance is bliss.
On the questions I asked, Hakia certainly delivered nice results. But I'm used to using Google and Yahoo, and Google and Yahoo usually get the job done, and I almost never wonder whether I'm getting "the best possible results." So unless Hakia, et al, focus on tight, defensible verticals--or sell their technology to Google/Yahoo/Microsoft--I don't think their future is promising.
Don't believe me? Check out Hakia's modest traffic over the past year. Or just ask the guys at IAC's Ask, who, despite being widely viewed as having the "best search on the web", despite massive advertising, and despite the brilliant Barry Diller, haven't budged off of 2% market share.