Wolfram Alpha goes live – so what is so special about it?

The new search engine, Wolfram Alpha went live today, although its 10,000 computing cores seem somewhat overwhelmed at trying to deal with the SlashDot effect of thousands of consecutive users trying it out for the first time.

There are now three different types of search engine:

  • Contextual (eg Google) – finds web pages in which your search terms appear
  • Informational (eg Ask) – finds web pages containing the facts you are looking for
  • Knowledge (Wolfram Alpha) – compiles information in direct answer to your queries

The best way to illustrate the difference is to do a simple search, for example: Paris France

Google returns a link to a Google map of Paris and a series of links to web pages about Paris, primarily travel-related commercial sites

Ask.com returns links to a wider range of websites, including news stories about Paris, Wikipedia and BBC Weather. Jeeves himself offers some additional links to related searches, such as ‘History Paris’.

Wolfram Alpha has a completely different approach and responds with a range of information about Paris, including the population, a map of France showing where Paris is located, local time, current weather, height above sea level and a nearby larger city (London 213 miles). Another big difference is that results can be downloaded as a pdf file.

In conclusion Wolfram Alpha is no replacement for Google, but then it doesn’t claim to be. Rather it is a useful new addition to your options when searching for information. It is also rather good at evaluating mathematic equations – try entering 1/sin(x) and see the resulting plots and related information.