Wolfram Alpha a Google competitor? Probably not…

By May 18, 2009 Uncategorized No Comments

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….

Also

“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.

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