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New Search Tool Is Getting Good Reviews

May 16, 2009

While Google reigns superior over other Internet search engines like Yahoo or Microsoft, an upcoming new challenger, WolframAlpha, is offering some effective alternatives, the Associated Free Press reported on Friday. 

Named for its founder, British-born computer scientist and inventor Stephen Wolfram, the new engine is not a traditional Web search engine.  In fact, Wolfram, who earned his PhD in theoretical physics from Caltech when he was merely 20 years of age, describes his invention as a “computational knowledge engine.”

WolframAlpha.com functions by taking a query and processing it through its databases to produce answers.  This differs from the way Google processes its queries by comparing them to internal algorithms that then hunt for results on the Web to produce a series of links to relevant websites. 

“The basic idea of WolframAlpha is very simple,” the 49-year-old Wolfram said in an online presentation of his venture, which went live for a test run on Friday. “You type your input, your question and WolframAlpha produces a result.”

The project was scheduled to launch on Friday at 8:00 pm but according to the company blog “some kinks” prohibited this from happening.
“We got off to a late start, but so far, so good,” it said.

In a telephone interview with Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of SearchEngineLand.com, he commented that WolframAlpha is a “really interesting tool.”

“I try to describe it as a ‘fact search engine’ to help people understand the degree that it’s different from Google,” he elaborated. “Google tends to point to stuff while (WolframAlpha) actually have some answers.”

He reiterated that WolframAlpha was not selling itself as competition to Google “although they want to capture the general search audience too.”

“They’re saying they’re not trying to wipe out Google but they feel they do the kinds of searches that Google doesn’t handle,” Sullivan said. “If you’re trying to get facts this might be a handy kind of encyclopedia for you.”

However, WolframAlpha “can be kind of finicky,” Sullivan said.

“It doesn’t have answers to everything that you might try,” he said. “So you tend to get sort of a dissatisfied feeling if you’ve done your search and it comes up with nothing for you.”

Sourcing may potentially prove to be another complication with WolframAlpha, he said. 

“Anytime you do a search they’ll tell you where the data has come from and where they’re pulling it from,” he said. “But, you know, sources from all sorts of places can be wrong.

“So there will still be that issue where some people may feel like ‘Hmm … I don’t know if I want to trust this,’ in the same way that they don’t want to trust Wikipedia sometimes,” he said.

With these discrepancies and others that have yet to be discovered, Wolfram said WolframAlpha is a “long-term project.”

“We’re trying to take as much of the world’s knowledge as possible and make it computable,” he said. “So that anyone, anywhere can just go to the Web and use all that knowledge to compute answers to their specific questions.”

In most recent years, WolframAlpha is the most ambitious venture in search projects since Microsoft’s futile attempts to pilfer market share from Google, Sullivan said. 

“It’s a fairly large project they’ve put together,” he said. “They’ve got like 150 people.”

Industry tracking firms say that Google leads the way with online search in the United States with a more than 64 percent share of the market, followed by Yahoo’s 20 percent share and Microsoft holding on to less than 10 percent. 

But, even with WolframAlpha’s stunning first impression, Sullivan believes Google still leads one step ahead.  

Additionally, Sullivan mentioned the company also released a laboratory project termed Google Squared earlier this week.

“What it does is actually trying to go beyond what Wolfram is doing,” he said. “Wolfram is gathering information that’s been all nicely and neatly put into databases and spreadsheets and everything.

“Google Squared is trying to find information from across the Web and automatically build those kind of spreadsheets for you.”

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On The Net:

WolframAlpha

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