Petreley's column: Don't know a Boolean search from Shinola?

I'm a sucker for natural language interfaces. I've been waiting for them to catch on ever since I got my hands on a copy of Symantec Q&A for DOS, which had a natural language query interface. (I seem to recall that Lotus also had a natural language interface for Lotus 1-2-3 named HAL.) But as much as I personally liked the Q&A query interface, I admit I've never seen anyone else touch it -- and I've known dozens of people who used the product.

The company Ask Jeeves may have found exactly the right place to exploit the power of the natural language interface and popularise it -- the Web. The Web is all about communication and providing the broadest degree of accessibility, and a natural language interface addresses both.

Ask Jeeves (www.ask.com) is a search engine like Yahoo, AltaVista, or Hotbot. You can perform a search by asking a question like "Who won the Vietnam War?"

Sure, you can ask that with other search engines. But there is often a world of difference in how the engines will answer the query. For example, AltaVista returned 2,965,837 hits to my question, the first of which was a link to a page about the Kent State tragedy in 1970. Yahoo returned two links only to a Vietnamese restaurant.

Ask Jeeves hit the answer dead on. But to fully appreciate the quality of the response, you have to know a little about how Ask Jeeves works.

Instead of providing hypertext links as answers, it presents a few samples of how it interprets my question. Each of these has an associated icon that links to the relevant information.

The first interpretation of my question in this particular example was: "Where can I learn about the Vietnam War (1961-1975)?" A click on the icon took me to a military history of the Vietnam War. The second interpretation read: "Where can I find information on the US history topic Vietnam War?" That link took me to another site about the war.

For good measure, the Ask Jeeves answer page also includes a subset of the links turned up by Yahoo, WebCrawler, AltaVista, Infoseek, Excite, and Lycos.

The reason there is such a big difference between Ask Jeeves and most other search engines is that Ask Jeeves doesn't search the Web for key words unless it has to. Instead, Ask Jeeves looks at your query and tries to match it against a list of questions in its database.

You can actually watch Ask Jeeves go through this process live at its site (make sure you have JavaScript turned on in your browser.) What you'll see is a little window where it prints the questions found in its database. Note that what you see are the matches Ask Jeeves found, not the exact questions users typed. (In case you're wondering, this feature deliberately filters out questions with profanity.)Obviously, if you want to use the Ask Jeeves engine for your own site, you will have to prime the database with an initial set of questions and answers. Dell Computer uses the Ask Jeeves engine as part of its online technical support, so I imagine Dell had to prime the database with a set of the most common questions and complaints. (Dell calls its site Ask Dudley.)As you might have surmised, Ask Jeeves is only as good as the database you create and maintain. You can improve its behaviour by generating reports to see how well it is interpreting live user questions. Then you manually update the database to fix the problems. (Ask Jeeves can also "learn" how well it is doing by keeping tabs of the links people choose from the answer set for any given question.)However, the value of Ask Jeeves increases substantially with every well-honed database you create. Better still, Ask Jeeves can search multiple databases for matching questions, even if the data resides on a remote site. Therefore, you can increase the value of your installation simply by tapping into someone else's Ask Jeeves data.

The only thing Ask Jeeves really lacks is a voice recognition-driven interface. Given a good Java speech API or some other Web standard, this approach could really change the way we mine information on the Net.

Do you think the Web is the right environment to make the natural language interface commonplace? Or will the Ask Jeeves interface turn out to be a niche feature that doesn't get used, as it did in Q&A?

Former consultant and programmer, Nicholas Petreley can be reached at nicholas_petreley@infoworld.com, and you can visit his forum at www.infoworld.com

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