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Wolfram Alpha – C3PO… but with less personality

Henry Elliss
Henry Elliss
Managing Director
18 May 2009

Will the new scientific search engine change the way we search for things?

c3poUnless you’ve been living under a large rock for the past few weeks (online), you’ll have noticed the increasing hype around the new “Wolfram Alpha” search engine, which is launching officially today. For those of you that aren’t yet familar, here’s a nutshell-sized explanation of what WA (as I’ll refer to it from here-on-in) does, and why – from their own “about us” page:

“Wolfram|Alpha’s long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone. We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything. Our goal is to build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries.”

Everyone clear on that? Okay, then I’ll move on…

As the explanation above (hopefully) highlights, the goal of WA’s makers is *not* for it to be a “Google killer” – despite what a lot of commentators have been speculating on it being lately. It’s a search engine for search nerds and scientists, plain and simple complicated. So if you’re hoping to use it to find the cheapest mortgage, or find out when the new Duffy single is coming out (both of which come back with a “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input.” response) – you’re going to be out of luck. But if you want to know what the tallest building in the world is, or the chemical formula for buckminsterfullerene, WA is a pretty good place to go. It’s a bit like a less socially-aware C3PO…

So, it’s clear that (in it’s current form at least), WA isn’t going to be a Google “killer” – but will it at least win in the scientific community, where it’s clearly aiming it’s sights?

As the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones points out in his excellent review of WA:

“The point of it is to answer any question involving data – from historical facts, to scientific knowledge, to share prices – and to present the figures in all kinds of useful ways”

But as you’ll see from the rest of his post, it doesn’t even fare that well with those searches. There doesn’t appear to be much you can get from WA that you couldn’t get through Wikipedia or other (more scientific?) encyclopedias.

alberteinsteinHere’s the biggest pit-fall with WA though (in my opinion). All the recent “exciting” advances in the way people search (whether it be Google or Ask Jeeves) seem to have involved the ability for search engines to understand linguistically formed queries, as opposed to good old keyword-based searches. But WA seems to fail on this kind of search in a MAJOR way. Not only does it prefer keywords, it encourages you to search in an even more unintuitive way – it seems to be encouraging people to take a backwards step in their search behaviour!

For instance, type in the question “What is the tallest building in the world?” – a question that WA should have no problem with – and before I get my answer I’m told to re-phrase it as “tallest building | world” – and then that gives me no results at all. Re-phrase to simply “Tallest building” and I finally get my data – and when you do eventually get your data, WA finally gets to show off it’s “bells and whistles”. As well as giving me results by both height and “number of floors”, it also shows me a handly little bar showing how each compares to the other results. It’s so intelligent, it can even solve your crossword clues for you – entering “k__wl__ge” gives me the word I’m looking for (knowledge!). But – and this is crucial – getting these amazing results seems to be a real pot-luck affair.

I guess the real question will not be whether WA has a chance at being Google’s next big competitor (IMHO – it doesn’t) but whether it will encourage people to change the way they search for things – which would obviously have big implications for the other engines if people do. But from my view of things, I’m not sure whether people will be bothered to do so – which would mean WA may be limiting it’s audience far too severely already.

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