Wolfram Alpha Challenges Google's Dominance

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The problem with Google is a lack of human contact. Not at the end of the process, where we humans consume a machine's idea of what we are interested in. That is too late. We need people at the beginning, where the information is gathered and developed.

Wolfram Research is trying to change that and tomorrow (May 15) you may get to see how they have done. Wolfram's new search tool, called Alpha, is a mix of human-selected and edited content mixed with more traditional search engine features.

Early reports make Alpha sound ultra geeky, as befits a search engine developed by a company best known for Mathematica, a leading program for doing complex math on desktop computers.

Alpha may not be publicly available until tomorrow, but some people are who have seen previews are already deciding it is not for them. My PC World colleague, Edward Albro, says he is not smart enough for Wolfram Alpha, but does an excellent job of putting the first release through its paces.

I don't think it's an issue of Albro's IQ or even Wolfram Alpha's IQ, so much as it is an issue of how different WA is from the search engines it will doubtless be compared to (like in this very post).

The Wolfram people say in interviews that it would be, to paraphrase, stupid to compete with Google. At least not head-on, though Alpha takes a glancing blow at both Google (all machine) and Wikipedia (all human) as information resources. Both have a place and WA seems to be attempting to split the difference.

Alpha tries to combine the best aspects of both all human and all machine content generation, but the first release will doubtless be less-information rich than anyone would like. Maybe it is best to think of WA as a Science Fair project writ large, but it already does things Google does not.

Can it be, then, mere circumstance that Google put on its Searchology media event the same week WA goes live? Forgetting that the unfortunate word "Searchology" makes me think of Tom Cruise doing odd things, I was happy to see Google is evolving by adding new search features and ways of displaying results.

It is important to remember that Google was not always the colossus we have today. Before Google, other search engines led the pack, including at various times both Yahoo and AltaVista.

A better search engine can beat Google still. Google is not forever and the company, realizing that, is not sitting still. Will Wolfram Alpha take huge customer share away from Google, probably not. Will Google evolve enough to hold onto its lead for the next decade? Maybe, and I would not bet on it.

I still have this lingering feeling that there is more out there and that Google may not make an easy transition to whatever the "next big thing" in searching turns out to be.

Maybe it is the semantic search, which Google is already dabbling in. Or maybe something else will appear to help us find information more effectively.

For a while, it seemed like Google had vanquished all opposition, real or potential. Wolfram Alpha shows this is not the case and I am happy for it. There is still hope for better search results.

David Coursey may not be smart enough for WA, either. But he's never wanted to live in the soggy Northwest, anyway. He promises not to tweet his bad puns. He can be contacted through his web site, www.coursey.com/contact.

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