Looking at Wolfram|Alpha: No Killers

First of all, Wolfram|Alpha is not a Web search engine. No, it’s not. It’s a Web aggregating engine, or a fact-checking engine, or a question-interpreting engine. It doesn’t present Web pages as results — according to its FAQ it doesn’t pull information from the Web at all. It’s not, as I understand them, a Web search engine.

Second of all, it’s not a Google-killer. How can it be? It doesn’t do what Google does. And what it does cannot replace what Google does. Wolfram|Alpha is not, as I see it, a Google-killer.

But here’s the third thing: Google is not a Wolfram|Alpha killer. Right out of the gate WA is surprisingly good. Yes, it’s wonky. Yes, there’s limits to what it can do. But what it can do is interesting and exciting and has got me hoping for more.

Wolfram|Alpha, hereafter known as WA, is available at and describes itself as a “computational knowledge engine,” with a little more information: “You enter your question or calculation, and Wolfram|Alpha uses its built-in algorithms and growing collection of data to compute the answer.” and furthermore: “You enter your question or calculation, and Wolfram|Alpha uses its built-in algorithms and growing collection of data to compute the answer.”

Wolfram|Alpha Talks Turtles

Wolfram|Alpha Talks Turtles

I started by asking WA a broad question: “How fast can turtles crawl?” WA didn’t understand what I was asking (it did this a lot.) I asked a couple different ways then just entered turtles. I didn’t get a max crawl speed but I did get a page of information about turtles from the reptile-y kind to the sweater. Searching for turtle gave me the taxonomy for the animal as well as other members of the class and order.

Deciding to start with something a little more basic, I went with the stock question for a question engine: Why is the sky blue? WA got that one fine. It also did okay with the more lighthearted “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”(The answer: “a woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood (according to the tongue-twister)”)

Asking “Where is Pluto?” got me a nifty sky chart, delineated from my position here in NC, along with rising and setting times, altitude, etc. Unfortunately “Where is the Grand Canyon?” assumed I was asking about a movie, and didn’t even give me any other options. I got a lot of information about the movie, including the release date and how much it did at the box office, but I would have appreciated at least the option to get a geographic location. “Where is Yellowstone Park?” DID give me information about the park, including number of visitors per year and size, but no map.

“Who is Rex Stout?” I asked WA, and it responded with some basic facts about the writer, including birth and death. WA could not answer “Who is Nero Wolfe,” however, nor could it answer “Who is Archie Goodwin?” Asking “Who is Santa Claus?” gave me information about two movies with the option to get information on Santa Claus, Indiana (!!)

WA didn’t do well with “How” questions. “How to make pancakes?” failed (though if you just enter pancake you’ll get a bucket of nutritional information.) Asking “How fast does a horse run?” failed. “How does Wolfram Alpha work?” also failed, to my amusement.

WA is mediocre at best as question engine. It shines in unexpected places, just as a reference search. Entering Value of a yen gets you a current exchange rate in your local currency, a chart for the last year, and a list of several other currencies for comparison. Temperature in Los Angeles gives me the current temperature and a forecast. Yawn. Except you also get comparative temperatures at three local weather stations and an option to view the temperature in LA OVER THE LAST TEN YEARS along with the record high and low.

Pismo Beach, and All the Data I Can Eat

Pismo Beach, and All the Data I Can Eat

Enter a first name and get information on that name’s popularity, along with a graph of popularity and age distribution (look at the one for Elvis; big spike in the 50s.) Enter an element symbol and get a rundown of that element including a little periodic table. Heck, just enter something goofy like six eggs and WA will give you aggregated nutritional information! Try stock symbols, city names, or celebrity names. (In addition to weird queries like this, WA will also do your math for you. I entered some algebra and some other math problems and WA politely solved them for me.)

For basic reference there were some things I was surprised WA didn’t have. For example, when I entered 90210 it was interpreted only as a number, not as a zip code. Entering 503 was also noted as a number, not an area code. (area code 503 worked, though.) I entered an ISBN and it wasn’t recognized. And while I was able to enter a UPC and get a bar code for it (and some very interesting number information) I didn’t get any information on what that particular UPC was for. To get a sense of what is available try this huge and broad-ranging examples page.

WA does not look or feel like a regular Web search engine. As I was playing with it, I was trying to articulate how it felt to me. “Humorless,” I thought at first. It certainly doesn’t have any of that 2.0 breeziness that you get from Google or Flickr. “Cold,” I thought later, but that wasn’t right either. Finally, while doing a search for diabetes, I got the right word that I’m not even sure is a word — “contextless”.

If you do a WA search for diabetes, you’ll get a bloodless set of statistics about American and World mortality statistics including cause of death probability. But you won’t get symptoms of diabetes, or treatment, or how it impacts your life. If you search for waffles you get nutritional information but not a recipe. If you search for Stephen King, you’ll get his birthday but you won’t get a list of the books he’s written!

I found many of WA’s searches exciting because they gave me clearly organized data and a variety of keywords and topics to explore. But in the end, the huge geyser of data this engine emits is just that: data. There’s not enough here about what this data means to a human, or what a human can do with the data, or what other humans have done with the data. Just getting all this data together and making it searchable in this way is a tremendous first step, but the second step is tying it to the cheerful chaos of the Web, giving users an extra place to take that data and turn it into ideas or plans or strategies or recipes.

That having been said, I have bookmarked WA and am using it as a jumpoff reference engine, especially when confronted with words, concepts, or formulas I’ve never seen before.

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