Wolfram|Alpha Launch Sparks Cheers, Curiosity, Confusion

For the past few weeks, the arrival of the new search engine Wolfram|Alpha was hyped as the next stage of search engine technology — a “Google-killer,” a new way to ask the Internet a direct question. So naturally, a few enterprising technology writers and bloggers wanted answers to some very specific queries when the Web site finally went live over the weekend.

The Atlantic Monthly asked if Wolfram|Alpha knew the name of Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee (it didn’t.) Tech blog Mashable asked the musical question, “How many roads must a man walk down before he can call himself a man?” (Wolfram|Alpha: “The answer is blowin’ in the wind, according to Bob Dylan.”)

Ridiculous/sublime questions aside, a quick Monday test-drive of Wolfram|Alpha, which is billing itself as a “computational knowledge engine,” resulted in some long page-load times, more than a few non-responses and plenty of analysis from technology observers. That discussion focused on the viability of search algorithms that promise specific answers to specific questions — not redirection to Web sites a la Google — all culled from a Wolfram-generated database.

A Quick Wolfram|Alpha Tour

“Wolfram|Alpha’s long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone,” reads the About section on the Web site. “We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything.

“Wolfram|Alpha, as it exists today, is just the beginning. We have both short- and long-term plans to dramatically expand all aspects of Wolfram|Alpha, broadening and deepening our data, our computation, our linguistics, our presentation, and more,” it continues.

The site is the brainchild of Stephen Wolfram, the man who brought the Mathematica computational software into the world. Mathematica also provides Wolfram|Alpha’s foundation, which is evident from the statistical and analytical slant to the answer users can find. Punching in birth dates, for example, results in a wealth of numerical-based information.

The site can handle most equations and simple queries — type in “Google,” as PC Magazine editor-in-chief Lance Ulanoff did, and Wolfram spits back financial data, “which I found interesting,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“It’s almost like Hoover’s,” Ulanoff said, referring to the online business research company. “It’s just very different from the other research tools that are out there. It’s making some assumptions about what you’re looking for in the first place. It’s like flipping through the encyclopedia, and you don’t end up with about 20 pages between your fingertips and saying, ‘somewhere within here is the answer’ — you end up with the actual page.”

The database providing those answers, however, is still a work in progress. Type “Rush” into Google, and the top responses send you to Web sites focusing on the enduring Canadian rock band and the popular conservative radio talk show host. Type “Rush” into Wolfram|Alpha, and you get financial data on Rush Enterprises, a publicly traded auto dealership company.

If you try to drill down deeper to connect Rush to music, the answer box tells you that “development of this topic is under investigation: leave your email address to show your interest.” For queries to which it has no answer, Wolfram relies on this: “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input.” Or, you can click the “search the Web” link, which takes you to (drum roll) — Google.

Asking for Help – and Advertising

Wolfram|Alpha is accepting help with topic suggestions and other user input to its database. It is also taking applications for users to test new versions of the site — sort of an ongoing beta department. One can become a “volunteer curator,” and those with very specific knowledge of certain subjects can join its Experts Network; those chosen can receive invitations to Wolfram-sponsored events and conferences, and some could get paid for “particularly extensive consultation or review activities.”

The Web site is also interested in advertising (referred to as “sponsorship opportunities”).

“Wolfram|Alpha site sponsorships provide unique audience access and brand-enhancement opportunities,” the Web site reads. “We are pioneering the next generation of targeted transactional advertising — integrating advertising deeply into the knowledge experience, providing the users an immediate action path based on newly acquired knowledge.”

Can that audience generate enough revenue for Wolfram|Alpha?

“That’s what we’re seeing happen now with the fragmentation in search,” Ben Bajarin, director of consumer technology at Creative Strategies, told TechNewsWorld.

“If you’re familiar with how more mature markets happen, they fragment once they reach critical mass because people become much more targeted and specific. General [search] information doesn’t fill their needs. If you can parse or cater the results to those habits, you can create a pretty good business. You can have a good handle on who it is [doing searches], and the type of person handling that business. Advertisers like that a lot more.”

“Instead of the undifferentiated masses, you’ve got somebody with more specific needs,” Ulanoff said. “If they understand how to use the terminology and some of the query strength, that might lend tremendous power to Wolfram — and, yeah, that’s going to be somebody you can sell a server to — but how many of those people are there?”

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