Wolfram Alpha Is No Google Killer, but May Be the Future

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.

Wolfram Alpha 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 of all 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 York City.

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 and diabetics.

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 computing technologies."

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 and Google 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 updated SearchMonkey, 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 result.

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?"