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Why WolframAlpha Isn’t a Google Killer

Posted on Wednesday, May 20th, 2009 at 7:50 am    

Everyone’s taking aim at Google these days. Whenever a new search engine launches, pundits speculate on the possibility of the newcomer being a “Google killer.” So far, no truly viable challengers have emerged; in fact, few recent search engines have even achieved respectable market share. You might remember the disastrous, bug-ridden debut of Cuil, a search engine created by some former Google employees, which billed itself as the largest index of webpages in the world.

The launch of WolframAlpha, the brainchild of Stephen Wolfram, predictably triggered the usual storm of speculation from web marketers and journalists alike. But should Google really be concerned?

Probably not.

To begin with, WolframAlpha isn’t really a direct competitor at all. It’s not a true “search engine” rather, it’s a “computational knowledge engine” that manipulates its own database of information to compute answers to a user’s query. Instead of returning a familiar list of relevant websites, WolframAlpha presents its own results in a report format. These results, according to WolframAlpha’s terms of service, belong to the company, and users are required to attribute the information accordingly. Not exactly typical search engine fare.

Unreliable Results

As one might expect from a debut launch, WolframAlpha came complete with its own set of bugs. Most notably, the engine doesn’t seem particularly adept at answering all queries. While searching for “New York” returns a nice list of information about the city’s population, weather, etc., the engine doesn’t do nearly as well with all questions. A search for “What is SEO?” turned up information on a spacecraft called Bhaskara.

In many other cases, WolframAlpha returns no information at all and simply informs you that it was unable to understand your question. Not very helpful, especially when you consider that most other search engines would return something for you to go on.

Different Role to Play?

Some people have pointed out that WolframAlpha might be more of a threat to Wikipedia than to Google. There’s a bit more weight to this assertion, but the results remain to be seen. At best, WolframAlpha’s restrictive terms of service and closed-off information model will prove to be serious obstacles to widespread acceptance.

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