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Wolfram Alpha a Google competitor? Probably not…

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Wolfram Alpha is, according to is creators, a computational knowledge engine. Which means that unlike search engines, it doesn’t serve up web pages related to a persons search query, but rather looks to answer peoples queries from its own developed database.

Since it is basically just a very big database, it isn’t always going to have an answer to your questions, and there are some questions for which it will never be able to provide an answer at all. Unlike a search engine, which will more often than not give you something at least.

It has been introduced by some news articles as a competitor to Google, but for many reasons this is not the case. There may be room for WolframAlpha in the search universe, but it is no threat to Google.

If anything, it is a bit more like Wikipedia, as it is a work-in-progress collection of information, the difference being it answers more boring questions, like mathematical equations (whats wrong with a calculator?) and it isn’t contributed to freely by the general public.

Why won’t it take over Google? Well, once it starts getting indexed by Google, then those pages will also be up for grabs by search engines. Currently, many Wikipedia articles are now found through Google, on certain topics they are often in the top 1 or 2 position. In the future maybe Wolfram Alpha responses may also be.

The even more obvious reason why it is no threat to Google is that if there proves demand for Wolfram Alpha type information, you can rest assured that it won’t be long before Google’s engineers will be finding a way to produce the Google version – maybe even piggybacking off Wolfram Alpha itself.

A Sydney Morning Herald article contained quotes from so called ‘experts’ which touted WA as a step up from Google, but the quotes are a bit nonsensical:

For example, while Google can identify the nearest place for pizza, Wolfram Alpha is designed to tell you where to get the best pizza, Mr Pesce said.

This is not quite true – Wolfram Alpha is not designed to handle subjective queries such as ‘best’ – whereas Google at least can serve up the opinions of millions, through review sites and articles which mention the phrase ‘best pizza’.  Using Google Maps, having already saving my location previously, a search from our offices in North Sydney for “best pizza” not only shows ones that are near (and therefore relevant) but also pulls in user reviews to help me decide.  On the other hand, I tried the same query on Wolfram Alpha and recieved a page saying “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input”.  It is early days for Wolfram Alpha, but SMH please use better examples….


“Google searches are really dumb,” Dr Kay said. “They’re using simple words without knowing what they mean.” Wikipedia lists facts but can’t do anything with them. He [Dr Wolfram] can answer queries that take combinations of things across his data, which means he can answer more complex sets of questions than Google can.”

I cringed a little when I read this quote.  Google has always invested heavily in looking at how keywords interact, localisation, and intent (for instance using an algorithm to decide whether a review is positive or negative).  This is why their search results are more often than not, more relevant compared to other search engines.  Also similar to the Dr Kay’s description of Wolfram Alpha using multiple combinations of things across its data, is how Google pulls in images, news, videos, blogs, maps and more into its results.  

I will say it is not bad – I have enjoyed looking at statistical differences between Sydney & Shanghai (though this information was pulled from Wikipedia) and if I was still at Uni or high school I would probably use it for quick info – maybe an iPhone app should be in the pipelines to help settle arguments in the pub….

So, in my humble opinion this is yet another site that while taking an interesting approach, is unlikely to topple Google in the near future.  It is good for finding out information about random things that are unlikely to appear anywhere else on the web (eg SMH’s opening line of “temperature in Beijing when Kevin Rudd was born).  In the end it is more of a competitor for Wikipedia – but really needs to grow substantially for that to really be the case.

Web analytics Series Part 1- Initial Set Up

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OK, so you have decided to put Google Analytics on your website? The first question you need to ask yourself is – why bother?

Imagine Google Analytics wasn’t free, and you had to justify to your boss why you should implement it (which may be the case for many people anyway, time being money and all that). This is an important thing to consider so you can make sure you get the most out of Google Analytics.

Web analytics can provide such a huge amount of data that it can be overwhelming. By having clarity on what exact information you want from the start, you can make the journey easier for yourself, and also make sure you set up your account appropriately from the very beginning.  For example, my reason for setting up the account on our website was to see the following main things:

  • Where traffic to our site comes from –  to try to figure out how to increase it
  • The traffic patterns to our blog – to know what is popular/worthwhile writing about; and
  • To examine interaction with our ‘contact us’ page – this is our main onsite ‘conversion’

Of course establishing some purpose to your web analytics doesn’t mean you can never use it for anything else, it just means that you have structure to your work, which means you are more likely to use your web analytics.

Once you have established your reasons for implementing analytics, just sign up. The sign up and implementation of the initial code is very easy. Simply make a Google account (or you probably already have one), enter the URL of your website, and cut and paste the code Google provides between the body tags of your website. UPDATE: It is much better to use Google Tag Manager to implement your Google Analytics.

Make sure to use the new code (not the old Urchin version), because any new upgrades and improvements by Google will be made to the new code only. UPDATE: as of 2014, you can upgrade to Universal Analytics.

Very quickly, your website will start to collect data. Still, there are a few more things you need to do with your account to make sure it is set up properly, so stay tuned.

Introduction to Web Analytics Basics

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How often do you check your web analytics account? Daily? Weekly? Despite the benefits of tracking and measuring activity on your website, it will all be of no use if you implement the tracking code and then never look into what is going on.

Businesses often implement web analytics code on their site, in the same way many people might buy a household appliance. You see the ads, you think it looks useful, you can imagine all the things you can do with it. Once you get it, you set it up, you use it once – and then unless you have stellar results the first few times, it is possible that you will relegate it to the back of a cupboard or out in the garage, because it is just a bit more difficult than you originally thought.

Web analytics has a lot of widely touted benefits – broadly that it describes your customers interactions with your site, information which you can utilise to improve the customer experience. However, to be able to do this, you need to not only put the code on your site, you also have to do a raft of other things, which sometimes intimidates people into not wanting to do this at all.

  • Set up extras – like filters, segments, goals, download tags and E-commerce
  • Monitor it regularly (even if it isn’t part of your normal daily job)
  • Report on the data in a meaningful way (i.e. distill it so that you get actual useful data)
  • Identify what you should do as a result of what it is telling you

Over the next few posts, I will use a case study of our own website to show you the easiest and most basic ways to utilise web analytics for your website. I will be using Google Analytics in my case study because I think any small business should start their web analytics experience using Google Analytics.

  1. It is free, and so it lets you dip your toes in without a big commitment
  2. It is super easy to implement, you don’t need to be a programmer, and
  3. It is very comprehensive – it provides a lot of the features of the paid packages, but free!

So if you want to set up analytics on your site, or figure out how you can improve utilisation of your analytics, read this series…

Using Twitter for Search

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I bet the Prime Ministers Office is buzzing tonight, with policy makers, PRs and assistants, scouring online newspapers to gauge the reaction of the nation to their 2009 Budget.

With the availability of online newspapers, no longer do we have to wait for the 5 o’clock news, but instead we can go online and refresh any newspaper site until the first stories start to come through about whatever topic we are interested in that day. Alternatively, we can get Google alerts to send us the news clippings as they arrive.

If you asked social media experts though, they would tell you that there is at least one other major source that the PM’s office should be canvassing tonight – Twitter. Recently hailed as the new ‘real-time’ search engine, Twitter is supposed to rival Google as an information source, particularly on real-time.

If you check out the Twitter stream about the budget, you will see that the vast majority of tweets are not reactionary or emotional, but rather statements. One of my hopes, and that of many marketers in general, was that Twitter would have been a source for gauging the opinions and feelings of your customers. But for any given topic, you have to wade through a lot of useless tweets to find interesting opinions.  The feelings are so far usually very high level and predictable – e.g. “it is so sad about the Victorian bushfires”.

It is also littered with tiny URLs – which are distracting and useless if you aren’t going to click on them. And realistically, you would have to have a lot of spare time to click on all, or even a proportion, of the URLs you find in a news-related Twitter stream. If I wanted to read related articles, I would still prefer to use Google news as a source, as it is a bespoke search engine for searching relevant articles and there is at least some quality control over the articles which are suggested.

Twitter just isn’t doing it for me – I don’t want to see all those tiny URLs, I don’t want to read banal comments like “the budget is out today”, and I don’t want to have to sort through low quality tweets and spammers.  I am ‘old-fashioned’, I prefer the technology of yesterday – Google and online news. for example has a collection of articles from a few different papers, and you are allowed to comment – so with them you get the ‘facts’ as well as a selection of opinions from ‘regular’ people.

While the hype of Twitter seems to have peaked, and now is falling slightly, I continue my sceptical opinion of it, and wait to see what it is truly useful for.

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