Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Search Insider: Wolfram Alpha And The Holy Grail Of Search

Wolfram Alpha And The Holy Grail Of Search

Search Insider: Stop! Who would claim to be the Bridge to the Death of Google must answer me these questions three. What is your name?


Search Engine: Today, call me Wolfram Alpha. I was previously known as Microsoft, Powerset, and Cuil.

Search Insider: What is your quest?

Search Engine: To kill Google, of course. Actually, 'Google-killer' is just a term used by lazy journalists. My real quest is to return the answer to any factual question that you may have the nerve to ask, as I discussed on my blog.

Search Insider: What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

Search Engine: What do you mean? An African or European swallow? I'll give you the answer to both.

Google: Auuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugh!

Okay, perhaps that makes me a Monty Python killer, but people seem to be pretty morbid these days. To wit, by 5 p.m. yesterday, I found 73 references of the phrase "Google killer" in Twitter, all related to Stephen Wolfram's new search engine, even though it's not due out until May. To be fair, many of the references lampooned the phrase "Google killer" and some saw the upstart as a complement to Google. The writer @burningbird even speculated that it could be a Wikipedia killer. By midday, some of the punditry died down; Wolfram Alpha fell out of the top Twitter trends just as National Napping Day became the hot topic.

The buzz all stemmed from Nova Spivack, CEO and founder of Twine, blogging about a preview of Wolfram Alpha: "[Wolfram Alpha] may be as important for the Web (and the world) as Google, but for a different purpose... Basically... you can ask it factual questions and it computes answers for you. It doesn't simply return documents that (might) contain the answers, like Google does, and it isn't just a giant database of knowledge, like Wikipedia.

Instead, Wolfram Alpha actually computes the answers to a wide range of questions -- like questions that have factual answers such as 'What is the location of Timbuktu?' or 'How many protons are in a hydrogen atom?,' 'What was the average rainfall in Boston last year?,' 'What is the 307th digit of Pi?,' 'Where is the ISS?' or 'When was GOOG worth more than $300?'"

The image that comes to mind is of the computer in the 1957 movie "Desk Set" with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, one of those magical and oversized computing devices that can do everything -- it can even "translate Russian into Chinese," and it's repeatedly referred to as the "electronic brain." Wolfram's 2009 vision is at least as ambitious.

The commentary from Wolfram and Spivack sheds light on how dumb search engines still are. They will find facts, but you still have to do the work compiling them. The "rainfall" question cited by Spivack feels especially pertinent given all the travel planning I've done. Yes, the facts are out there, and I've been able to check a couple weather sites to find the average rainfall of a certain destination over the past five or ten years during a certain time period, but I always hit some wall or another due to poor usability or lack of data.

I just tried querying Google for "average rainfall belize 2003-2008 january february march," and the top results included Belize's election history, country reports for Slovakia and Poland, and weather in Spain. Yes, my query is not one that's asked every day, but I also wouldn't expect search engines to answer it. The engines aren't training us to search smarter. We'll only challenge Google and its peers so much because we can't afford to waste our time sifting through the disappointing results about elections and Poland when we want weather reports for Belize.

I'm not questioning Google's motives here; it's not trying to keep us dumb or make us dumber. Yet there's a big difference between information retrieval and computation. All of the semantic engines I've seen so far focus on making retrieval better, while other engines try to change around the search results page as if it needs some kind of digital feng shui. Wolfram Alpha strikes me (one of the masses who hasn't seen it yet) as solving a new problem. If it succeeds, congratulations, Mr. Wolfram, and thanks in advance. If it doesn't, Wolfram is paving the way for others -- perhaps even Google.

The biggest challenge for Wolfram Alpha has been enumerated often enough: Most people aren't actively looking for an alternative to Google.

Wolfram Alpha: Go and tell everyone that we have been charged with a sacred quest. If they will give us a few moments in May, they can join us in our quest for the Holy Grail of Search.

Search Insider: Well, I'll ask them, but I don't think they will be very keen. Uh, they've already got one, you see.

Wolfram Alpha: What?

Search Insider: They said they've already got one!

Wolfram Alpha: Are you sure they've got one?

Search Insider: Oh yes, it's very nice!

David Berkowitz is director of emerging media and client strategy at 360i. You can reach him at dberkowitz@360i.com, on Twitter at @berkowitz, and through his blog at MarketersStudio.com.

Search Insider for Tuesday, March 10, 2009:

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