Wolfram offers smarter search

Dylan Bushell-Embling
19 May 2009

With much fanfare, a new search engine, Wolfram Alpha, has launched promising to provide answers to complex questions by automatically compiling data from multiple sources.

Created by British mathematician Stephen Wolfram, the creator of computational software Mathematica, the site already contains over 10 trillion pieces of data. It uses over 50,000 algorithms and models to compile the data into an answer to complicated questions.

Want to know the GDP of Hong Kong? Just search for "GDP Hong Kong" and Wolfram Alpha will display the figure, convert it to your local currency and provide a graph mapping Hong Kong's GDP over the past 40 years. Typing in "NTT" and "NTT DoCoMo" gives the market cap, revenue, employees and other key data on the two Japanese telcos. Searching for a word will give definition, synonyms and related terms.

But as the name indicates, the site is still in alpha stage, and some searches still confound the engine. For example, searching "museums in Italy" currently returns no results.

A more fundamental limitation is that although each search provides a list of its sources, it currently does nothing to tell you which fact came from which source. This could hinder the site's success both as an academic tool and among typical search users.

It may be some time before Wolfram Alpha poses a threat to Google's search dominance, particularly since Google is constantly adding new features itself – including 120 in Q1. But perhaps that's not the goal.

A number of other new search engines are also aiming to capitalize on areas where Google is lacking – including sites which try to return personalized results based on previous browsing habits.

Wolfram and these other engines could find success in these niche areas, even if they don't depose Google as the most-used search service.

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