Wolfram Alpha made its debut on May 18, and the online community immediately started making comparisons to Google, Yahoo and other search engines. Given Wolfram Alpha's computational nature, the comparison may not be exact, but the search engine may suggest a way online search could evolve in coming years.
launched on May 18 to much media attention, and a number of online
pundits suggested that it could be a "Google killer."
Analysts have said that outcome is unlikely, but the search engine Website
nonetheless offers a twist on traditional keyword-based search that could make
it of particular use to academics and the enterprise.
On the surface, Wolfram Alpha joins other startup search engines looking to
eat into the dominance of Google,
recently reported to lead the core search market with 64.2 percent
core searches conducted in April, according to a report by research company
ComScore. Yahoo came in second with 20.4 percent of the market, followed by
Microsoft sites with 8.2 percent.
But Wolfram Alpha is different from many others; instead of relying on
natural language algorithms to search the Web or providing some minor twist on
the standard-issue keyword search, the site operates as a computational engine.
Click here for screen shots of the Wolfram Alpha search engine in action.
For example, type a mathematical equation into the Wolfram Alpha search bar,
and the site offers up the input, the result and the "number name," a
spelled-out version. Enter the name of a celebrity or city, and it spits back
relevant numerical values: James Dean's date of death, the population of New
Another feature allows users to input the name of a particular food, such as
"cake," and receive the average nutrition facts for that item, such
as total calories, total fat and total carbohydrates-a useful tool for dieters
That's not to say Wolfram Alpha is Google's humorless older cousin. If you
type in a speed, such as 50 mph, the site will tell you, among more practical conversions,
what percentage that speed is of the 88 mph that Marty McFly needed to drive
the DeLorean DMC-12 in order to travel time in "Back to the Future."
Wolfram Alpha utilizes over 10 trillion pieces of data, over 50,000
algorithms and models, and linguistic capabilities for over 1,000 domains. The
company said its site runs on "supercomputer-class compute clusters"
and makes "extensive use of the latest generation of Web and parallel
The site was created by Stephen Wolfram, the founder and CEO
of Wolfram Research and the creator of Mathematica, the computational platform
whose symbolic code forms the core code base of Wolfram Alpha.
"It points to a couple of very interesting trends in terms of where
search is going," Allen Weiner, an analyst with Gartner, said in an
interview. "Wolfram has taken search visualization to an entirely new
level, and showed incredible promise for providing results in a way that wipes
out the outdated notion of 10 hyperlinks."
Weiner cited the recent attempts of Microsoft, Yahoo
to also move into the search visualization space.
On May 12, Google
announced the upcoming rollout of Google Squared,
a search application
available through Google Labs that will take unstructured information and
organize it into a customized table, which in turn will sort more detailed
information about the search term into categories.
Google's demo of the new application featured a search for "small
dogs," which created a table listing information such as size and breeds.
In March, Yahoo
allowing site designers to make their pages appear as
enhanced results in Yahoo's search results. Integrating lines of code into a
page will display a thumbnail image of the site's video beside the search
According to Weiner, the recent moves by Wolfram, Google and Yahoo could
indicate how search will look in the future.
"I think a search engine might attempt to give you, at the core of your
results, the structured things with the greater utility, with links off to the
side," Weiner said. "Ten blue links is just, 'Here they are, go at
it.' We don't want to have to click at all."
The segment that may eventually find the most use for Wolfram Alpha,
however, is business and the enterprise.
"The power of the search technology and computation may have better
application within the business environment to address specific needs for
research, whether pharmaceutical or aerospace or military," Sheri McLeish,
an analyst with Forrester, said in an interview. "It's a great opportunity
for those in the realm of math and science."
However, the same issue confronts Wolfram as other upstart search companies,
not to mention social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter
: How does a
site operator monetize its services sufficiently?
"It's tough to sell," McLeish said. "How do you monetize it?
Is it a not-for-profit endeavor? How do you make it the sort of thing that's
going to generate revenue?"