Wolfram Alpha Update: Not a Search Engine

June 10, 2009

The world wants a company to compete with Google. I survived the Cuil.com hype. Then I endured the Wolfram Alpha début. Then a drop off. Wolfram Alpha owes Wired Magazine a hug or maybe a double truck color ad. Ryan Singel’s “Wolfram Adds Updates, Still Not a Search Engine” here to keep the company in the search game. Ooops, Mr. Singel pointed out that Wolfram Alpha is not a search engine. He wrote:

In this first update, the engine is adding some new data sets, changing how it handles comparisons between units that can’t be compared, and tweaking how it handles what users type into the search box. It’s also fixing some touchy issues about geography, including the borders of India and China and “naming for certain politically sensitive countries and regions.” For certain queries, it’s unbeatable. Try for instance, “tides Santa Cruz tomorrow” or “odds three aces” or “weather san francisco march 14 2008.”

Wisely Mr. Singel included some sample queries. I have spoken with a number of people about the Wolfram Alpha search system. One theme was that queries returned no useful data or a cute response. The naked search box and formulating a query that makes use of the Mathematica engine may be at odds with what the folks with whom I spoke want in a a finding system.

My hunch is that Web search systems have to deliver the goods to those who sit smack in the middle of a Gaussian distribution. A bit of a drift right may not be too harmful, but aiming at the outliers is not going to make Jim and Jerry Normal happy with their search results.

Several observations:

  1. Bing.com may be closer to what the folks splat in the middle of a normal probability density function require. Wolfram Alpha is too abstract for that crowd. The notion of the central limit theorem has to be delivered to the user no matter what wackiness is typed in the search box.
  2. Wolfram Alpha requires the user to think. Google, on the other hand, does not. Which of the two systems has more math is a topic for a bar argument. In terms of market share, the GOOG’s approach wins hands down.
  3. The sadness of those who must explain that Web search engines intended to nibble at Google’s scales and claws is becoming more bittersweet. Those writing about Web search may want to include anigifs of tears running down the page because contenders can’t last one full round of mixed martial arts against the Google.

The good news is that Wolfram Alpha was the subject of a follow up story in Wired. Poor Cuil.com seems to have dropped off the edge of the “wired” earth. Kosmix? Where’s Kosmix? ChaCha? What happened to ChaCha?

Stephen Arnold, June 10, 2009

Comments

One Response to “Wolfram Alpha Update: Not a Search Engine”

  1. DWD on June 11th, 2009 10:44 pm

    News Flash: Wolfram Alpha never CLAIMED to be a search engine. Mr. Singel’s “articles” insist on denegrating a computation engine for not being a searhc engine, as if it had somehow failed a crucial test. That’s like blasting my refrigerator because I can’t seem to get it to cook my pizza.