IBM’s Watson and Search

February 17, 2011

The news is out, Watson beat two of the most prolific champions on Jeopardy.  What really impressed me about this technology is how well it understood the subtleties of human language.   Computers are very good at process strict rules.  Riddles, rhymes and Jeopardy do not always follow simple rules.  I think there is a real parallel between answering Jeopardy questions and returning search results.  As good as they are today search results returned by Google and Bing have a lot of room for improvement.

One of the most important things I do is help my clients figure out the words a searcher is likely to enter when looking for what my client offers.  I often use the example of what we do with sensitive paper documents, most of us call that “paper shredding” but the people in the industry call it “document destruction”.    These phrases refer to the same thing but they results returned by Google are different.

Paper Shredding Document Destruction
www.shredit.com www.documentdestruction.com
www.shrednations.com www.shredit.com
en.wikipedia.org www.cintas.com

The answers in my example are close but not exactly the same.  The difference gets larger for harder to describe problems.  Understanding what we mean versus what we say is a very complicated task.   Search engines have come a long way in helping us find the information we want but they aren’t good enough, yet.

I don’t disagree with what Danny Sullivan says in his blog – Could Google Play Jeopardy Like IBM’s Watson but I think he underestimates how Watson could impact search.  While they might be slightly biased the IBMers over at Writing for Digital wrote the 3 Ways Watson Manifests the Future of Search blog post.  Their post highlights how they think the Watson technology will help search.   I tend to agree with where they think it will go.

Watson isn’t about to replace Google anytime soon.  I do think the folks at Google and Bing will use this major PR win for IBM as incentive to make their search engines produce better results.

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