Back in March we brought you news of Wolfram Alpha’s impending release and labelled as ‘the British take on Google’ it promised a whole new type of search engine, and one that could revolutionise the way we think about searching; so now its release has come does it live up to the hype? Could it beat Google at its own game?
Well the first thing to make clear is that it isn’t a ‘Google’ — it doesn’t search for web pages and it doesn’t merely redirect you to the information (although Google is doing more of its own data representation). What it does do it find the answers for you, which is something we haven’t seen before mainly due to limitations in our computation skills.
So what’s Wolfram Alpha like? Well much akin to Google it has a simple layout with a search bar at the top (note the ‘equals’ sign rather than a ‘search’ button which hints towards a more mathematical outlook) but when you search you are presented with information on your input, or an answer to your question (if it could interpret it).
So Does It Work?
I think the best way to demonstrate the differences will be to put two different data values in: firstly “English” and then “zath technology blog” and see what comes up. Having typed English into both I had a look through, and the results were quite interesting.
In Google I got the predictable range of results including Wikipedia’s ‘English Language’ page, English Heritage’s website, the BBC ‘learning English’ page and a link to the YouTube Video ‘Hakuna Matata (English)’.
However, Wolfram Alpha gave me 5 boxes containing a variety of information on the English language; the first had main properties (like number of speakers and origin), then lexical properties (e.g. numerical names and character frequency) followed by a small flow chart showing how English is classified, fourth is a list of the top 10 countries with English native speakers by number and finally a global map showing the location of the speakers.
The difference is obvious — Google directs you to other pages whilst Wolfram Alpha finds the information for you. But is it worth it, do you actually save time? An experiment was in order! To find the total number of speakers through Google and Wikipedia (the top result) took me 5.2 seconds whilst through Wolfram it was 3.4 (and bearing in mind that it is new and there are lots of people on it [I have had ‘we are too busy’ error messages already] it will probably reduce).
So it may seem that we should all flock to Wolfram, but our second search highlights why this won’t be challenging the majority of what Google is used for — although Google queried my use of ‘zath’ instead of ‘math’ the top result was zath.co.uk, and I found it easily. However Wolfram predictably couldn’t find anything; it is designed to find answers as a ‘computational knowledge engine’ not web pages.
So what does this mean for the future? Well it definitely works, and it can only get better as it collects more data and speeds up but the misconception that this is going to challenge Google for mainstream searches is incorrect, especially when it’s continuing to develop its search engine features such as Google Similar Images and Google News Timeline Search.
What it will do however is claim some of the more fact-based searches that Google had — and I have only touched on the things that Wolfram Alpha can do, things like plotting mathematical graphs, finding out the weather in your area and comparing stocks. All of these combine to make something really ingenious and that can make all of our lives that bit easier!