Two days ago, Marissa Mayer published an article in which she mentioned the wide range of meanings a simple search term like "jaguar" can have. Now, Google's taken a big step towards improving its grasp of language, with the company announcing this afternoon that it's acquired Metaweb.
Let's address two points right now. First, Google did not disclose the purchase price. Second, we have no idea why news of this acquisition was sandwiched between Apple's iPhone 4 press conference and the start of the weekend, when it seems unlikely to get a lot of coverage.
Otherwise, Jack Menzel, a director of product management at Google, explained on the Official Google Blog that Metaweb is "a company that maintains an open database of things in the world." He then added, "Working together we want to improve search and make the web richer and more meaningful for everyone."
Need an example? Menzel continued, "Type [Barack obama birthday] in the search box and see the answer right at the top of the page. Or search for [events in San Jose] and see a list of specific events and dates. . . . But what about [colleges on the west coast with tuition under $30,000] or [actors over 40 who have won at least one oscar]? These are hard questions, and we've acquired Metaweb because we believe working together we'll be able to provide better answers."
Indeed, Metaweb's Freebase, which is a "database of over 12 million things, including movies, books, TV shows, celebrities, locations, companies and more" should come in quite handy there. And interestingly, Google intends to keep Freebase free and open (as it is now) so that other companies can use it.
It should be exciting to see what happens. Natural language search has of course represented something of a holy grail for search companies for quite some time.