Posted May 12, 2009 10:33 am by with 23 comments

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Let me ask you something. Do you think we need Wolfram Alpha?

I know that’s the equivalent of asking someone circa 1999 “do you think we need Google?” but I’m just not sure what role the much anticipated search engine will fill.

Oh, excuse me. It’s not a search engine. It’s a “computational knowledge engine.”

The NYT tells us that Stephen Wolfram–Alpha’s creator–is “not keen” on the comparison with Google. But, even if it’s not a true search engine, will the average web user find value in Wolfram Alpha?

Consider some of the examples given to demonstrate the potential of Wolfram Alpha:

Type in “Pluto” and Alpha calculates the dwarf planet’s distance from Earth at that very instant…If you type “LDL 120,” it will return a graph showing the distribution of cholesterol levels among the United States population.

Wow! That’s impressive stuff–if I were a scientist!

It seems that Alpha will fill a need that the scientific community will appreciate, but what about us average users? OK, so perhaps there will be a time in my life when I will need to know the average cholesterol level of my next door neighbor, but when I want to “order flowers online” I won’t be turning to Alpha.

And, that’s the big challenge I see facing Alpha. It’s not a matter of how accurate or sophisticated the search engine/database/index is, it’s simply a question of its everyday usefulness.

I’ve not tested Alpha yet, but I suspect it will be more of a challenger to Wikipedia, than Google.

  • I totally agree. I think it all comes back to the intent of each engine. That’s the key differential in my mind when it comes to this. The technology itself sounds pretty amazing but it’s not out to dethrone the king at all. It will be interesting to see how this starts to grow and piggyback off of itself in different sectors.

    Anyone feel like making a Greasemonkey script so that I can see Wolfram data injected in my Google SERPS?

    I wrote up an article yesterday about why Wolfram Alpha will Not be a Google Killer:

  • @Greg – I’m sure someone has a WA greasemonkey script in the works–they’re just waiting for the site to publicly launch. 🙂

  • @AndyBeal I will be first in line for that one. Having Twitter in my Google results has turned into a wonderous thing. Technology Mashups FTW!

  • tyler

    andy, i think you might be right about this being more of a challenger to wikipedia than google. however, google drives a tremendous amount of traffic to wikipedia, so W|A effectively eliminates the middleman. that is, if it can draw attention from google. the scientific reputation might be enough to keep potential users away.

  • I am not a Scientist. I do however see tremendous potential for third party development with Wolfram/Alpha including grease monkey scripts. Here is a review I wrote with screen shots of some actual queries. Key West News as curated by Wolfram/Alpha.

    Eric Logan’s last blog post..Key West News as curated by Wolfram/Alpha.

  • Not just scientists. It seems like students doing research papers could find it useful. And there are plenty of students out there.

    If that really is the niche they are targeting than good for them. It seems like the best way to build a search engine is to target a niche that Google isn’t specifically targeting and then find a way to get really good at it.

    WebbyThoughts’s last blog post..Keyword Research and making money with AdSense

  • I’m curious what would be returned on an “adult” search in Wolfram Alpha…if it’s graphs and data, I don’t think they’re meeting the searcher’s needs :.)

  • Is it horrible for me to still be impressed? Maybe I’m still a math and science nerd even though I’m just a Mommy Blogger.

    Jessica Gottlieb’s last blog post..Sending You Other Places Today

  • I kind of like this idea. It is actually one of the better ones that I have heard of lately. However, it just seems like these start ups end up failing.

    NFL Trade Rumors’s last blog post..Vikings president confirms interest in Favre

  • You haven’t tested it yet but you already have an opinion on what it will actually do and how useful it will be?

    Andy, are you part of the estimated 10% of Google users who are so hard-core they make up 50% of Google’s traffic?

  • @WebbyThoughts – you’re right, students will love it!

    @Todd – lol!

    @Michael – I’m just going by what the Wolfram is saying. Speaking of opinions, you read one post and you have the opinion that I make up the 10% of hardcore Google users. 😛

  • Dan

    Actually the good folks at Wolfram Alpha gave me early access to the program, and I really like it a lot!

    Will it automatically appeal to a teenager? Probably not, but if that teen is smart, she’ll soon discover that the math engine built into it will SOLVE their algebra homework (just click “Show Steps”).

    For the post-high school crowd, Wolfram Alpha has some pretty neat features, such as stock comparisons.

    Is it perfect “as is”? Of course not! But the 1.0 version is pretty interesting and powerful.

    My guess is that they will continue to add more information feeds over time to make this even a BETTER product.

    I’m hooked!


  • @Dan – thanks for sharing your feedback. That said, it seems that Alpha will mostly appeal to those doing computational/educational queries–which seems to support my theory.

  • Ed

    As usual, the truth here is somewhere in the middle of all the hype. No, it’s not a Google Killer as you will undoubtedly read in many blogs. Primarily because, and Andy rightly points out, it’s usefulness is not in every day life activities. However, I don’t think it will be “boring” for the average consumer user either. True, most internet users wont get the maximum benefits from Wolfram’s advanced features, but neither do they get all the benefit from Google’s advanced features. People will use what they need and having multiple tools out there is a good thing.

    It drives me batty when people constantly take this either/or attitude. Granted, “batty” is not a far drive for me, but still.

  • Peter

    If WA manages to become the defacto knowledge engine in academic and scientific circles, it will be a major coup, and a first against Google. You eat an elephant one bite at at time. No one is going to replace Google in one go. But if WA becomes the cool thing and Google is pooh-poohed in academic circles, then it will become a wedge in the crevice that will not easily be removed. It appears that this is very likely what is going to happen.

    All we then need is another WA for shopping or travel and the benefits of using more than one search engine will become clear. The market could once again become fragmented and democratised, like the Internet was supposed to be in the first place.

    The most positive thing about WA is that it is not trying to be a google-killer.

  • @Ed & @Peter – you too should get together as you share similar views. Maybe you’ll be right. Maybe people will flock to WA for specific types of searches. We’ll have to wait and see!

  • People just want an alternative to Google since it had its fair share of spam results lately. Right now I don’t really know what Wolfram is doing differently but its interesting to see this when it comes out.

  • DJ Halcro

    Boy as this evolves it will become a most effective tool, talk about a advancement in doing research. Students and researchers will soon discover that the math engine built in will assist in helping them with their algebra homework. Wolfram Alpha has some pretty neat features, such as stock comparisons which will also assist researchers as it evolves.

    This tool, as it continues to improve and become a stronger process as it will continue to add more information feeds over time, could make this a awesome break through in research for the masses, we will see. This could be the next “Killer Application.” Well done to all.

  • I don't think Wolfram Alpha can be compared to Google or Wikipedia. For me, it's a nice tool I can use to calculate specific stuff – a glorified calculator, maybe 🙂 I already used it for practical purposes today converting cm to inches (although I concede that Google could have done that).

    The demographic stuff has also got me interested. Populations of towns/cities/countries can be useful for market research but at present, it is limited. If WA could get more specific demographic info, it could be a fantastic market research tool for the future.

    It looks promising – more promising than Cuil (anyone remember that)?

  • george

    “I’ve not tested Alpha yet, but I suspect it will be more of a challenger to Wikipedia, than Google.”
    Can't even be bothered to try it, but I'll give you my opinion anyway…

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