There's been a lot of buzz about a new search engine called WolframAlpha. BusinessWeek wrote about it, Justin.tv covered the launch preparation, and it was even linked to at the top of the Drudge Report, a high-traffic political and news web site.
So we thought we'd check it out.
Just for some background, WolframAlpha is the brain child of British physicist and mathematician Stephen Wolfram, founder of Wolfram Research. Advocates of the site are quick to point out it is not a search engine in the traditional sense. It does not crawl a database of web sites and try to display ones that probably have the information for which you are searching. Instead, it attempts to answer specific fact-based questions primarily with numeric data and information. Some articles have asked if WolframAlpha is a Google killer, but a quick comparison between the two shows that both sites serve a very different purpose.
We did these same four searches at each web site:distance to moon
mountain view gainesville
Here is what we found:
distance to moon
WolframAlpha: when we searched for the phrase distance to moon at WolframAlpha, the site displayed the extact distance from Earth to the moon in miles, kilometers, and also listed some other numerical information.
Google: When we searched for distance to moon at Google, a web site called UniverseToday was the first result. It contained information similar to the data displayed on the WolframAlpha site, but it was not as direct or straigtforward.
mountain view gainesville
WolframAlpha: In case we ever want to visit Google headquarters, we figured we'd better find out how far away it was (we are located in Gainesville, FL). We purposely omitted extra keywords such as distance or time just to see how WolframAlpha interpreted our search. We were pleasantly surprised that WolframAlpha displayed the populations of Mountain View, CA and Gainesville, FL, as well as the distance between them. There were also options to select different Mountain View towns, such as Mountain View, NC, and different Gainesvilles as well, such as Gainesville, GA. It had some other data too, including the local time and elevations.
Google: When we put in the same terms at Google, the first result was a web page for Mountain View Home Builders of Gainesville, GA, the second was for MountainView racing. It took a little while looking through Google results to find the information we were seeking. Of course, on the flip side, someone living in Gainesville, GA could conceivably have entered in this same query looking for the contact information of Mountain View homebuilders, and would have immediately found what they were looking for on Google. There would be no point for that person to do the same search on WolframAlpha since it is not an index of web sites.
WolframAlpha: Realtek is a company that makes chipsets found in some of the WiFi products we sell. A search for Realtek on WolframAlpha came back with "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input."
Google: The first result was Realtek's official web site.
WolframAlpha: If you've ever wanted to convert dBm to mW or mW to dBm, you may have gone to a search engine and entered the above terms in order to find a conversion program/calculator. Knowing that WolframAlpha is centered around numeric data and calculations, we thought this would make for a good search. But we got the same result we did for Realtek, which was "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input".
Google: At Google, the first result was a mW to dBm calculator.
Conclusion: The question has been asked is WolframAlpha really a search engine, and the answer is yes. So is Google, of course. But our comparison today reminds us that the word "search" covers a lot of ground, and that one cannot take a single approach to such a complex area. For a long time the idea of a search engine has been taken to mean a way to find web sites that have the information we need. WolframAlpha is not about taking you to web sites. Instead it attempts to answer questions of fact, questions that can be answered mostly by numbers. You would not use WolframAlpha for all of your searches. It won't be helpful in finding the hours of your local pizzeria or the career rushing yards of Barry Sanders. But it can be useful for other types of queries, much more useful than a traditional search engine like Google.
The biggest question for us is will we remember to use it? Using Google, Yahoo, and other search engines has become so engrained in our minds, that when faced with the need to find an answer about something, we have to wonder if we will stop and say "hey, we are more likely to find the answer we need faster at WolframAlpha than Google". My guess is probably not. And because of that, I doubt that WolframAlpha will ever become a large household search product like Google. But it does have a good chance to become a common name in academics and research, and a useful one at that. It is a step forward, and that is the definition of a technological advancement in its most simplest form.