Wolfram|Alpha Celebrates First Anniversary with Some New Features

Happy birthday, dear Wolfram|Alphaaaaaaa…. happy birthday to youuuu….. Search engine Wolfram|Alpha put up an interesting blog post Tuesday about its first anniversary and the way it has changed over the last year. The search engine also announced a few changes.

The home page is a bit different, pretty but still simple. If you’ve never quite “gotten” W|A, check out the examples by topic, so you can get an idea of what Wolfram|Alpha can do. If you really want to get under the hood, check out the still-incomplete entity index, which shows you very specific examples of what W|A covers in different categories. (This is still under development but it’s fascinating and I can’t wait to see how it fills out.) The home page also has settings now, too, though it’s just for background settings (the blue one is nice) and whether W|A shows hints or not. Looks like it relies on cookies to keep these settings.

There’s also some new content; the site now offers street maps; searching for something like Sydney Opera House shows, in addition to information about the structure itself, a street map to where the structure is located. There’s also several ways to search for diseases — pulling up that URL will let you calculate disease risk, look at the incidence of disease in populations, get information on specific diseases, and more. I did find that I had to play with my searches a bit to get some of these results. And of course I knew a long time ago that the phrase random disease works.

W|A also announced that when the search engine doesn’t know the answer to a question, it’ll will try to find the “nearest” query to interpret. It doesn’t work all the time, but W|A is working on making this better. I’ll need it, because I’m still not great at figuring out Wolfram|Alpha’s syntax sometimes, though I find myself using it more and more.

In fact, I’m using it so much that I find myself actually looking for a couple of features, though neither one of them is probably what W|A is made for. First of all is an expansion of random words. You can search W|A for random word and get a word with definitions, synonyms, etc. But though the definitions include the parts of speech, you can’t search for, say, random noun. I wish you could; it would be a handy tool for Mad Libs or generating random queries for Flickr. You also can’t stack random queries, either, which is a shame. Wouldn’t it be a great creativity tool for writers if you could run the query random first name, random surname, random occupation, random city and get all the answers on one page?

Happy birthday, Wolfram|Alpha. You’re not getting as much attention as you probably deserve, but it hasn’t stopped you from evolving in new and useful ways. Keep it up!

Searching Dashboard Style

A couple of weeks ago Netvibes announced a new “dashboard engine” to get real-time updates, single-screen style. If you liked Mashpedia you’ll like this. To try it go to http://www.netvibes.com/en and click “Get Started”. You’ll get a page asking you to enter a keyword and then specify whether you’re searching for News, an Artist, or a Brand. I choose a “News” search for Goldman Sachs. The first thing Netvibes did was give me a series of photographs to choose a theme from. Then after I chose one I got my dashboard.

I was a little taken aback by this screen when I saw it; the initial user interface is so slick and the actual dashboard is kind of — boxy. But who cares! Plenty of consolidated data is here and so what if the presenting modules don’t have rounded corners? The default tab is for news and shows results from Flickr, Google News, Yahoo, and Google Blog Search. Each of the modules are customizable; you can change the number of items that show from a source, change the color, remove it entirely, etc. You can also edit the layout of the entire tab. (If you don’t like a widget view there’s also a “reader” view that makes the dashboard look more like a traditional RSS feed reader.)

Yes, this is only one tab of data! There are others; one for general information — more like a personalized portal than anything else — and three devoted to your actual search. There’s one for videos, one for general chatter (on social networks and elsewhere) and one for your search across several different Google properties. If that isn’t enough for you there’s a tab across the top of the page that’ll let you add more content modules, from news to travel. If you can’t make up your mind there’s also a list of essential widgets where you can start.

You don’t need to be logged in to play with Netvibes dashboard, but if you get a (free) account you get more functionality, like the ability to share your dashboards.

I was really impressed with this. There tabs and the widget options mean you can pack a lot of data flows into one screen. The only thing I saw that you’ll have to watch is that the modules don’t update automatically that I could see, so you’ll have to periodically refresh the page. This is an excellent companion to Mashpedia or Cpedia if you’re using that.

Cuil Launches Cpedia, Web Aggropedia

Poor Cuil, a victim of what I like to call “Teoma Syndrome.” Teoma, for those of you who weren’t geeking out on search engines ten years ago, was a search engine that launched in 2000. It got TONS of publicity. Lots of people made noise about it. It was the alleged Google killer. Ask.com bought it in September 2001, spent some time working on it, and then it just kind of… faded out of the public consciousness. It’s still at http://www.teoma.com/ if you want to try it. It’s not a bad engine, if you can ignore the smaller data pool and the fact that for every page of ten search engine results you get ten sponsored results (five above and five below.)

When Cuil was launched there was a similar level of fuss, a lot of press, and then poor reviews and some concern about results. Cuil had interesting ideas, but couldn’t compare to Google at launch.

But here’s the thing. If Cuil hadn’t been so constantly and overtly compared to Google, it could have stunk at launch and that would have been unfortunate but okay… it would have had the breathing room to get better. As it was, there were bad reviews at launch, it wasn’t Google, and it didn’t get the traction it could have. And that’s one of my complaints about this “Google killer” business.

The thing that kills Google — one week from now or ten centuries from now — will not look anything like Google. Yahoo and Ask are not threatening Google right now, Facebook and Twitter are. And if something like Facebook gains ascendancy, it won’t be a Facebook clone that overcomes it. It’ll be some site or service that we can’t imagine now, like BrainColorSearch, a USB-powered portable MRI that you hook to your computer while exploring the Internet. The portable MRI device scans your brain constantly as you search and each item of Internet content has an aggregated brain scan associated with it. Searchers using BrainColorSearch match for relevance and for a map that most consistently matches their brain (or how they have declared they want their brain to look — a specified mood.) Searchers end up exploring a Web that makes them the most neurologically comfortable. (Soon tweeners begin “Brain Bombing,” hacking the MRI devices to search for content items that generate bizarre, almost impossible MRI activity maps…)

Okay, that example was a bit goofy, but you get the idea. The next company to displace the leader will not be leader+10%, it’ll be something completely different and (at least for a while) strange.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh yes, Cuil. Cuil has moved away from being a Web-type search engine and has announced a change to something different, an attempt to aggregate “instant reference” pages. Sort of like Mashpedia, which I reviewed last week. Cuil’s new effort, Cpedia, doesn’t seem to go to the breadth of Web properties that Mashpedia does, but I found the results more relevant in some cases with nice clustering.

Start your search at http://www.cuil.com and enter a topic. I used Benjamin Franklin as my test search with Mashpedia so I repeated it here. As you can see all the content in the result is from Web search — you won’t find Flickr, YouTube, etc here except as the byproduct of a Web search. The results were a little odd; the first one was “huh?”-inducing — I couldn’t figure out why it ranked higher than the Wikipedia article — but the rest of it was good content. There were other tabs across the top of the page to provide more targeted content — Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Benjamin Franklin House, etc.

There were also related topics on the right. The query Benjamin Franklin spawned such related topics as “Gentlemen Scientists,” “Continental Congressmen From Pennsylvania,” and “United States Presidential Candidates, 1808.” These headings show a list of topics which, when clicked, take you to a new page of search results (though in the same browser window, so open some tabs if you want to go off exploring.)

At the top of the topic list is a window that opens real-time results. I didn’t get any for Benjamin Franklin, so I tried cows and I only got one for that, so I tried Padres and then I got a bunch, from Twitter and other news services. A slider allows you to specify how recent you one the information to be, from last hour to last day. I am not normally one to comment on design, but it’s annoying to have the main search page designed vertically, and the streaming results designed horizontally.

I can imagine using Cpedia in a complementary fashion to Mashpedia. I’d come to Cpedia first, to explore content topically and zero in on the names/descriptions/topic headers that really find me what I want. Then I’d take those to Mashpedia and use them to explore certain parts of the Web (Flickr, YouTube, Twitter) more deeply.

Google’s Letting You Star Your Searches

I hate bookmarks. I really do. I always find way more things to bookmark than I can possibly keep organized. And though I will bookmark things (you kind of have to after a while) I despair out of getting any proper use out of what I’ve saved.

Google, last week, announced a compromise between creating lots of bookmarks and saying the heck with it. Now, searchers can mark interesting search results with a star. And the starred results will show up at the top of your search results the next time you do a search that leads to those pages.

Sadly, I did not get to test this myself. Google announced the new feature on March 3, but as I’m writing this a few days later the new feature has not yet rolled out to me. It will be available for all logged-in users eventually, though, so I’ll keep looking.

In the meantime you can see how it works with Google’s blog post. Search results and maps will have stars. Click the stars and the next time you do a search result that you’ve starred, it’ll show up again at the top of your results. Clear enough. The items you star will also sync with your Google Bookmarks and the Google Toolbar.

I like this level of favoriting results as I don’t have to try to keep anything organized. Furthermore I like it better than Google’s SearchWiki, which it is replacing, as I didn’t like the idea of reorganizing Google’s regular search results. With this the starred results are separated out at the top, and it’s easier to see what’s going on.

But there was one very important question I didn’t see answered in Google’s announcement, and I don’t think it’s a question that it’ll answer. Will starring search results change a Web site’s pagerank, or whatever Google is calling it now? If one person stars a page I doubt that will make a difference, but how about if ten thousand people do? Will it change? What if ten thousand people star and page and then suddenly a tenth of them unstar it?

kgb Turns Answers Service Into Giant Database

If you watch commercials on American TV you know what kgb is. The company’s commercials are weird enough that they kind of burn into the brain. If you’ve missed it, here’s a quick overview: kgb is a text answer service. Text a question to 542542 and get an answer. Of course, the answer costs you 99 cents and whatever data charges apply to your cell phone plan.

Now you can get some kgb answers for free. kgb has released, in beta, a database of its answered questions. It’s available at http://www.answers.kgb.com/. The site is described as having “millions” of questions, but I didn’t see an exact answer count.

The front page of the site has featured questions with links to answers (kind of an Olympics theme going here) along with popular questions. There’s a category listing at http://answers.kgb.com/categories/all. And of course you can do a keyword search. I searched for What is the most popular cartoon character?

I got six answers. The interesting thing is that two of the questions were very similar — What is the most popular cartoon character and what is the number one cartoon character ever? — but had two different answers. The answer to the first question was Homer Simpson, while the answer to the second question was Bugs Bunny. Every answer I looked at included a link to an online source for the answer, so both answers had evidence to back it up.

On the other hand that’s a pretty subjective question. So I asked, What’s the tallest building in the world?. Of the five questions returned that included that information, four of them had the same answer (Burj Khalifa, though it wasn’t always referred to by that name.) The fifth answer noted Tapei 101 as the tallest building in the world, a title it lost after Burj Khalifa was built. So I wouldn’t immediately trust these answers but instead would use the answers and the source URLs to do some investigating of my own. (kgb has several buttons that allow you to share and respond to answers; it would be good if the site also had a “Please doublecheck this answer I’m not sure it’s correct” button.)

If the question for which you’re searching is not available, you do have the option to send in your question for the usual 99 cent fee.

I wouldn’t trust this site nearly as much as I’d trust a librarian reference service. On the other hand, the site is free and fast, and the sources with the answered questions give me places I can start my own research. Take a look!