Monday, May 18, 2009

Wolfram Alpha—For Times When Google Isn't Nerdy Enough

There has been some talk about a new search engine called Wolfram Alpha. Well, the search engine with the name of a Joss Whedon villain is finally public and it puts a decidedly different spin on Internet search than Google. Whereas Google will return a list of links for your search query, Wolfram Alpha treats it as a question and tries to supply answers to it. "Big deal," you say. "Ask Jeeves did that years ago and it sucked." Actually, Wolfram Alpha is very different in the way it supplies answers. Wolfram Alpha takes a strong mathematical/analytical bent. A quick query of this search engine using my birthdate tells me that among other things, I was born on a Saturday and that the moon was in a waxing gibbous phase. I also told that Bradley Schlozman, a politician whom I've never heard of and that Brian Stepanek, an actor whose name I find vaguely familiar share my birthdate.

Searching Google for the same date told me no such thing. For one thing, Google doesn't seem to recognize my dirthdate as a date. Instead it returns a lot of links of documents which have the numbers in my birthdate but don't necessarily correspond to that specific date. It also shows a Google Calculator equation showing that my birthdate adds up to -71. On the other hand typing the word "Buffy" into Wolfram Alpha returns nothing while Google returns numerous links full of information relating to Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. In a similar vein, putting the word "pants" into Wolfram Alpha just returns a definition and some interesting ways to display synonyms for that word while Google returns numerous links ranging from where to buy pants to pictures of pants. It begins with a Wikipedia article on the history of trousers and includes a link to something called "No Pants Day" which encourages people to not wear pants on the first Friday of May.

Moving on to more mathematical ground which is supposed to be Wolfram Alpha's strength has more interesting results that show off the relative strengths of both search engines. A search query for "2000 census" on Wolfram Alpha shows some nice graphs and tables of world population data. On Google, the results are more U.S. centric beginning with U.S. government's census website. It also includes a huge list of links to census data from various sources.

While it seems impossible for Wolfram Alpha to match the richness of Google's results, this new search engine seems more interested in finding a niche of providing quick answers to specific mathematical questions. While Google wants to rule the world, Wolfram Alpha has set its sights on a small group of nerdy researchers.

No comments: