Structured Search Is On The Table

December 13, 2009
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Freebase. Wolfram Alpha. Google Squared. I hesitate to declare a trend, but there does seem to be a growing interest in more structured approaches to information seeking.

The latest entry is Factual, launched today by Gil Elbaz. Elbaz is no slouch: in 1998, he and Adam Weissman co-founded Applied Semantics (originally known as Oingo) and built a word sense disambiguation engine based on WordNet. In 2003, they sold the company to Google for $102M, where it became the bases of their very lucrative AdSense offering.

According to Factual’s website:

Factual is a platform where anyone can share and mash open data on any subject. For example, you might find a comprehensive directory of restaurants along with dozens of searchable attributes, a huge database of published books, or a list of every video game and their cheat codes. We provide smart tools to help the community build and maintain a trusted source of structured data.

Factual’s key product, the Factual Table, provides a unique way to view and work with structured data. Information in Factual Tables comes from the wisdom of the community and from our powerful data mining tools, and the result is rich, dynamic, and

Freebase. Wolfram Alpha. Google Squared. I hesitate to declare a trend, but there does seem to be a growing interest in more structured approaches to information seeking.

The latest entry is Factual, launched today by Gil Elbaz. Elbaz is no slouch: in 1998, he and Adam Weissman co-founded Applied Semantics (originally known as Oingo) and built a word sense disambiguation engine based on WordNet. In 2003, they sold the company to Google for $102M, where it became the bases of their very lucrative AdSense offering.

According to Factual’s website:

Factual is a platform where anyone can share and mash open data on any subject. For example, you might find a comprehensive directory of restaurants along with dozens of searchable attributes, a huge database of published books, or a list of every video game and their cheat codes. We provide smart tools to help the community build and maintain a trusted source of structured data.

Factual’s key product, the Factual Table, provides a unique way to view and work with structured data. Information in Factual Tables comes from the wisdom of the community and from our powerful data mining tools, and the result is rich, dynamic, and transparent data.

You can read more detailed coverage in Search Engine Land, TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb, GigaOM, and VentureBeat.

To me, Factual sounds like a hybrid between Freebase and Many Eyes. And, like both, it’s free (as in free beer). Free cuts both ways: the Factual site states clearly that “There is currently no way for us to help you monetize these tables.” As with many companies at this stage, the business model is TBD.

I have mixed feelings. I like the increasing interest by startups in structured search. It’s a step in the right direction, since structure is a key enabler for interaction. But we already have one Freebase (and even Google Base), and it’s not clear that we need yet another company to enable crowd-sourced submission of structured data. Perhaps what we need is a way to incent the sort of behavior that has made Wikipedia so successful. As my colleague Rob Gonzalez (who is rumored to have a blog in the works) is always happy to point out, structured data repositories are a public good that no one is ever willing to pay for. The current best hope seems to be the Linked Data initiative, which sounds great in theory–though I think the jury is still out on whether it will succeed in practice.

My ambivalence aside, I am excited that some of the greatest minds in computer science are focused on bringing more structure to the information seeking progress. Even if some of these efforts prove to be false starts, we’re going in the right direction. Structured search is on the table.

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