After all the hype, I got around to taking Wolfram Alpha for a spin last night due to being unable to sleep after a weird Doctor Manhattan themed nightmare. The experience of using the site is very impressive and there is a great walkthrough of the power of the site in the Wolfram Alpha screencast which I encourage people to watch if you are interested in learning about a new breed of search engine.

There have been a ton of articles calling Wolfram Alpha a "Google Killer" but after using the site for a few hours although I find it fascinating, I question how much of a threat the site is to Google either as a way to satisfy the typical questions people ask Web search engines or a threat to Google’s search advertising cash cow. You can get a sense for the kinds of queries that Wolfram Alpha handles amazingly well from the list below

As you can tell from the above list, Wolfram Alpha is like having a search engine over the kind of data you’d see in the CIA's World Factbook or Time Almanac. There really isn’t anything like it on the Web today. However it isn’t really a competitor to traditional web search engines who for the most part are still focused on finding web pages despite the various advancements in answering a subset of queries with direct answers instead of links to web pages such as Google's OneBox results and Live Search’s instant answers feature.

From my perspective, the threat to search engines like Google isn’t Wolfram Alpha but the trend it represents. That trend is the renaissance of the vertical search engine. Earlier this year, I was putting together a panel at the MIX ‘09 conference and needed to invite the panelists from a pool of people who I’d either heard about or knew of professionally but had never contacted directly. How did I find out how to contact these people?  Even though all of them had blogs, there wasn’t a consistent way to track down contact information. So I looked them up on Facebook and sent each of them a private message. Mission accomplished. Unbeknownst to me, Facebook had become my “people” search engine”.

Here’s another story. Last year I worked on the most satisfying software release of my career, Windows Live (wave 3). After the launch I wanted to find out what people were saying about the product so I did a Twitter search for Windows Live and posted the results. While I wasn’t paying attention, Twitter had become my “what are people saying about <insert brand here>” search engine.

This trend of search engines dedicated to specific scenarios and contexts that can’t be answered well by Web search is the trend that traditional search engines should watch carefully.

I can imagine Wolfram Alpha eventually growing to satisfy a lot of the sorts of queries I go to Wikipedia today to get answers to and doing so in a more authoritative manner. In that case, it would become my “facts and trivia” search engine. However there are currently too many gaps in its knowledge of commercial products (e.g. search for “ipod” results in a coming soon notice) and people (e.g. the Jim Carrey entry is amazingly brief yet still manages to have a factually inaccuracy) to make it a true replacement for wikipedia. That said, the service shows great promise and it will be interesting watching as it evolves. 


Saturday, May 16, 2009 6:52:51 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
The massive difference between WA and Wikipedia is that it's a black box.

You mentioned the error with Jim Carrey, how will that be fixed? What mechanism is involved? Times that by millions or billions of factoids.

I am yet to be convinced that this isn't Madonna's 'Sex' book for the web.
Iain Holder
Saturday, May 16, 2009 7:18:03 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Hardly killer of either.
Saturday, May 16, 2009 7:45:09 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I don't see Alpha as competitor of Google nor Wikipedia. Wolfram Alpha is a new kind of tool: is not a web indexer and is not an general purpouse encyclopaedia. It's a semantic database and a computational engine. Indeed, a semantic Wikipedia could become a major source of data for Wolfram Alpha and future similar tools.
Saturday, May 16, 2009 10:52:03 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
How does this compare to Powerset (now owned by MS)?
Sunday, May 17, 2009 4:13:53 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
this is not going to harm google or wikipedia. This tool will have it own place, especially when it comes to education. Schools might allow students to cite alpha as a resource but we have to wait and see.
Sunday, May 17, 2009 11:37:44 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Like the educational system doesn't suck enough.
Monday, May 18, 2009 7:35:02 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Looks like a more advanced version of instant answers for web search, but not full web search. Definitely useful for a certain class of queries, but only a supplement, not a replacement, for full web search like on Google.

Perhaps it is also could be competitive with and Kosmix if they can get search engines to consider their result page as the authoritative answer to a large number of queries.
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