WolframAlpha – Not a Google Killer

Less than one year ago, the world was a buzz with the latest bit of tech news. The Google Killer was being released and it’s name was Cuil (pronounced “cool”). In case you don’t remember, it was dubbed as such because it was a new search engine, with $33 million dollars of investment capital, created by two ex-Google employees and one from IBM, which (at launch) indexed some 120 billion Web pages or three times as many as Google did.

Cuil.com launched on Sunday, July 27, 2008. When was the last time you used it? Exactly. Near the end of 2008, it’s market share was under 0.01%. Cuil was not the first engine touted as the Death of Google and it surely won’t be the last.

Well the news that’s  creating a buzz now, and I’m sure you’ll likely hear about it, is the latest Google Killer: Wolfram Alpha. However, there is a difference this time around and a significant one at that.

Wolfram Alpha IS NOT a Google Killer! It is however something that deserves some time and thought, especially considering the way the Web has been moving. Here, allow me to illustrate:

Evan Williams vs Matt Cutts vs Stephen Wolfram
Evan Williams vs. Matt Cutts vs. Stephen Wolfram

Still a bit lost? Allow me to clarify.

That first picture is Evan Williams, CEO of Twitter. Look at that picture, taken and posted on Flickr with his just-married wife. See how close up and personal it is? See how it was taken by his own hand? See his little faux hawk with just enough of the background to try to impress you and whomever might view it on the social networks?

The second picture is of Matt Cutts, Google blogger and spokesperson. For people in search engine marketing, he might as well be the CEO. See how casually he tries to come across in his polo shirt as he tells a conference room of 300+ about Google’s latest improvements and why the big guy does what the big guy does?

That third picture up there is of Stephen Wolfram. He’s a British physicist, mathematician, and businessman known for his work in theoretical particle physics, cosmology, cellular automata, complexity theory, and computer algebra. This is a rare and staged shot of him trying to appear personable and accessible with a subtle bit of marketing behind him.

What do these three have in common? Well they each either represent the establishment or the things that are supposedly going to overthrow the establishment.

Herein lies the problem. Each of these individuals represents something completely different and unique on the Internet. None of them are going about looking at the same data. None of them are looking at their data sets from the same mindframe or for the same purpose. I think that’s evident from the pix and descriptions above. That’s not to say that what each of these people bring to the table isn’t important. Not at all. Just pointing out that when different people come at different things for different reasons, the outcome is usually different.

That’s why I say, with utmost confidence, that WolframAlpha isn’t a Google killer! Nor will it be, though often times the geeky side of my brain kicks in and wishes that we lived in a world in which it might be.

If WolframAlpha isn’t a Google killer, then what is it?

Wolfram Alpha is a computational knowledge engine with one simple input field that gives access to a huge system, with trillions of pieces of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms.

-Stephen Wolfram

What? Not nerdy enough for you? Perhaps this will clear it up:

Wolfram Alpha Diagram
Wolfram Alpha Diagram

Thought so. Clear as can be right?

Now for the other 2 of you that read this who aren’t dorks let’s think of it like this:

WolframAlpha is a search engine, created by Stephen Wolfram, that will launch in May 18 of 2009.  The main difference between this and what you and I are used to using that we call a search engine is that we mostly look for banal things. Like, what’s the best exterminator to call in Akron, OH? Where can I find that red pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes that I saw on the runway last week? What are some quotes by Mark Twain? And just who did that girl you almost got to 3rd base with in 11th grade end up marrying?  I can pretty much guarantee that Stephen Wolfram could care less about helping you find the answers to those questions.

Instead, imagine being able read and cross reference every piece of intellectual and scientific data recorded. Want to know what the path is of the X satellite? Want to see it laid out live right now and cross reference that info with the paths, orbit speeds, distances, etc since it’s launch? Bingo. Wolfram has your answer. That’s not to say that lay people won’t be able to use it for some very interesting things. For example, if you’d like to know the depth of saturation of Internet availabilty across a continent and then see numbers for the country with the lowest and the highest saturation with rankings of all inbetween, this is for you. Perhaps you should think of it like a modern (2.0 if you will) version of an almanac. All hard data, changing live, that you can look at and check against other data. This, my friends is where WolframAlpha will excel and leave Google in it’s wake. This, however, is precisely why it is a huge leap forward for information but only a small step for users to continue to use Google for most daily searches.

If your search queries are more along the lines of “britney nip slip” then move along as where you type that in won’t be changing soon.  But, if your queries are more like “integrate x^3 sin^2 x dx” then your prayers are going to be answered very soon. Personally I’m excited at the doors of opportunity that open because of this technology. I think scientists, professors, university students, journalists, and anyone who has been missing facts from their data will revel in the new ways to access information.

More reading and watching:

Stephen Wolfram lecture and demo at Harvard (1hr 45min, no screenshots but WELL worth watching)

WolframAlpha Screenshots (leaked)

Wolfram Alpha Computational Knowledge Engine (brief overview)

Image “The α-chair”  courtesy of Gache Wurzn.

Most recent posts by Greg Habermann

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15 Comments

  1. I’ll be curious to see if WolframAlpha catches on in any of the academic circles or if the technology will just get gobbled up by the highest bidder.

  2. Finally! You my sir are being sane! Which is rare, especially when comes to WolframAlpha thing.

  3. Greg,

    I agree with your overall conclusion…Alpha is not a Google-killer. It’s purpose is quite different. Alpha is focused on queries that require or benefit from some degree of data analysis, rather than broad web text searches. For example, if you searched Alpha for “$15 per hour”, you’ll get responses that tell you what $15 per hour comes to as an annual wage, or what the equivalent of US$15/hour is in the currencies of British pounds or Japanese Yen. If you do the same search on Google you’ll get a list of jobs advertised for $15 per hour. Same search, completely different responses, both of which are potentially useful if you know what your objective is and use the appropriate service.

    The other thing is that Alpha does not search the web. It queries a very large set of data which is “curated” by the Wolfram folks, plus some trusted external sources for certain real-time data such as stock quotes, weather data, etc. So Alpha can almost never be as current as Google or any other search engine which is constantly combing the web for new information. Many folks see this as a limiting factor for Alpha – how can it scale if everything is curated by one organization – but if it is useful enough for it’s intended purpose (most facts don’t change constantly) then it can still be very successful for users, and as a business.

    But I agree – forget this silly “Google-killer” stuff. This is not coming from the Wolfram folks themselves, but merely from over-excited, under-informed writers and analysts looking for dramatic angles on the story.

    Tony Shaw

    PS: As you know, there was a very good piece on Alpha from Doug Lenat published in our journal Semantic Universe at:

    www.semanticuniverse.com/blogs-doug-lenat-i-was-positively-impressed-wolfram-alpha.html

  4. I actually appreciate your argument here. Third party development have the potential to transform Wolfram/Alpha in the same way that it transformed Twitter. Here is a review I wrote with screen shots of some actual queries. Key West News as curated by Wolfram/Alpha. ff.im/-2K4ny

  5. Thanks for all the great comments everyone. Nice to see some level headed and real consideration going into what the ramifications of this this new search engine will be.

    I think the real uses will come out of understanding what Tony explained above. That the intent of the engine is different and therefore the reasons for and returns on similar queries will yield such different information. Those differences will determine how this technology plays into our lives.

  6. “Each of these individuals represents something completely different and unique on the Internet. None of them are going about looking at the same data.”

    Thank you for this one. Here in Germany, there is a lot of media stuff talking about the Google Killer without even knowing wolframalpha doesnt want to be one. Unfortunately, “Google” is such a buzz word these times, they do not want to provide some premium kind of information..

    (sorry for english, hope you’ll understand me.. :))

  7. Excellent explanation of how WA moves things in a new direction. There is a solid place for more analytical tools where market may be smaller and more inert but important none the less. WA is a great teaching tool as well.

  8. Reading all the comments on Wolfa Alpha has made me realize people tend to only write comments so that they can leave a link to another article on the topic. This is great & all but it leads to endless reading on wolfa of the same exact thing over and over again. I’m glad ur article has provided a new outlook on the topic.

  9. “WolframAlpha – Not a Google Killer”

    CONGRATULATIONS CAPTAIN OBVIOUS

  10. You raise some very fascinating points, thanks for taking the time to jot down this post. So what happens to this wolfa alpha now? IMO, this is still a google competitor as it serves a very similar purpose – to give users what they search for. Just my 2 cents.

    Anyway, I’m very interested to have a google killer coz google is being a jerk right now to ppc marketers. I’ll show my buddy this as well to get his opinion. Thanks.

  11. This is great & all but it leads to endless reading on wolfa of the same exact thing over and over again. I’m glad ur article has provided a new outlook on the topic.

  12. Thanks Amy!

    Although hailed as a Google Killer when I wrote this article.. it’s been obvious that this is not the case. However.. this Search Engine brings many things to the forefront and has definitely brought a lot of attention to Bing over the past year with their inclusion of Wolfram Alpha data.

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