Monday, May 18, 2009


Today sees the official launch of the new search engine Wolfram Alpha. It's been live since the weekend, as a soft launch, and overall commentators are not impressed.

WA works in a different way to Google - it tries to answer the question on a screen, rather than to give you a set of links. The problem is that it takes data from a limited set of sources (to ensure acuracy), rather than the whole web.

The problem with this approach is that Google claimed a couple of years ago that about a quarter of all searches done on their site are completely new - that is things that have never been asked before in precisely that way. This mind-boggling fact, which shows how amazing Google is, is presented here in a graphical way by my former colleague Lynette Webb.

So - does WA work?

For some things it's impressive. I like to test search engines with Groucho Marx's favourite question: Groucho was once at a seance, and was asked to volunteer a question - anything at all - for the medium to answer. Groucho thought for a few seconds and then asked "What is the capital of South Dakota?"

WA does well on this one: Lots of information, well presented.

So far so good. But would it be any help at a pub quiz? Coincidentally, I run a couple of pub quizzes, so let's have a try with some of the questions. I input all of the following to WA to see which answers I got.

- In the video game Nintendo DS, what do the initials DS stand for?
- What flower is the symbol of Yorkshire?
- What is the French word for Firemen?
- What is the maximum number of different clubs is a golfer allowed to have with him during a game?
- What was the previous name for the 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland?

5 pretty straightforward questions (and all ones that Google can answer within the first page of results), but each totally foxed WA. In each case I got the message "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input"

From this I would conclude that Wolfram Alpha simply isn't ready to deal with the bulk of queries from internet users. It may work well for acadmics or people using it in a very technical way (and skilled in inputting their searches.) The problem is that Google is just too good, and we get pretenders coming along pretty regularly (Mooter, Cuil, anyone?) so we get jaded with these new dawns. Also, it takes a certain sort of ego to name your site after yourself - I can't think of any major websites that are named after their founders. OK, the Page Rank algorithm in Google is named after Larry Page, but only real geeks know this, and it works as a pun anyway.

Finally, probably the biggest threat to Google in search seems to be twitter, where people can search live tweets from other users (compared to Google, whose data is a few hours out of date). Taking on Google is very hard - twitter did't attempt it, it just came as a byproduct of their main service.

Finally, finally, some wag has created a site called Wolfram's Beta - see it here. Very funny!

(& finally, finally, finally, it seems that the WA people do have a sense of humour of their own. Nice.)

See also - How to Monetise Twitter


Dr Paul said...

I think that pub quizmasters are having to move away from solid facts into more lateral areas to combat all this instant knowledge.

It's not killing the pub quiz but it's certainly moving the goalposts.

And you're righ - its going to take something serious to shift Google. Google is pretty good - that's the bottom line!

danwat1234 said...

So, is Wolfram Alpha ever going to come out of the Alpha stage of development and enter the Beta stage?

Dan said...

Wolfram Alpha is just the name for it - Alpha meaning 'A' or the best, in this case. So yes, it's a fully finished product I think - it's already out of alpha, beta and so on.

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