Wolfram|Alpha: A new way to search

In case you’re wondering why I’m posting this, especially when Wolfram|Alpha was on the front page of WordPress.com today anyway, let me explain. I had the idea to blog about WA (Wolfram|Alpha, wolframalpha.com) earlier this week, as I found out about it just after starting the blog. I thought it’d be an interesting topic as well as (hopefully) a bit of a traffic driver for The Economicist. I also have intended to use this post more to inform about the engine’s general capabilities, instead of going into the technical details as Gowers seems to have done. Hopefully the combination of our posts will help you learn more about this interesting new tool. Below is my original draft, with some more recent edits.

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Many people are familiar with the feature on Google that allows them to type in, say “6+6” and have the answer shown to them separately from the search results. The feature allows for some things besides simple math, but doesn’t go very far. Wolfram|Alpha is a new solution to that problem. Built in partnership with Dell, this tool has some serious power.

Calling itself “the world’s first computational knowledge engine,” which basically means that it is considered to be more intelligent than the competition, WA works very well at what it’s designed to do. It looks pretty, too. The linked page shows the results for a search of “Time in Anaheim.” The search was done from a computer in Michigan, so WA pulled up two clocks for comparison as well as other time-related information. Other queries you can use include company lookups and comparisons, dates (“September 11, 2001” brings up the basic details of the World Trade Center attacks), and locations. There’s more, but you can see all of that at the website itself. 

Besides the calculator, there are resources that easily put WA head and shoulders above the competition. The information search function is interesting, as it quickly combs through all sorts of data and puts it all in one easy-to-read page. In essence, WA’s search condenses the information you would find on Wikipedia (here’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”) and displays it in the form of charts, maps, animated images, and other visual aids. For the geeks among us, the coolest thing about WA is not that it shows all of that, but that it shows all of that without having gathered the information in advance. Unlike Wikipedia, dictionary.com, and other resources, which must have pages set up beforehand, Wolfram|Alpha gathers its  information after the corresponding search. 

To summarize this whole thing, Wolfram|Alpha is a deceivingly simple, yet amazingly smart tool for anybody looking to gather information and statistics. It’s not a replacement for Google, Yahoo!, or Ask when it comes to abstract or personal searches (you wouldn’t be able to find your friend’s MySpace with WA), or identical terms (“MP3” showed information on the chemical compound), but it beats them hands-down when it comes to finding a complex group of information in one place. What could take ten minutes to find and read on another search engine takes less than one on WA. Check it out at wolframalpha.com and let me know what you think.

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BONUS: Many people have called Wolfram a sort of search engine, though it doesn’t really work like the traditional Google or Yahoo! search. However, along with WA, there are plenty of alternative search engines out there. Some of the ones I’ve found useful are listed below. Both of the socially responsible ones are based on Google or Yahoo!, but the others work with their own programs.
Cuil had a lot of buzz as a sort of Google killer when it first came out due to its privacy policy and number of indexed pages. It’s worth looking at.
SearchMe has a very cool visual search option that displays webpages in an iTunes Cover Flow-style format. Keeping with that iTunes-like theme, it also includes multimedia like music videos in its results.
EcoSearch is a socially responsible search engine in that for a certain amount of searches their website processes, they will donate money to plant a tree. So far, over 2500 have been planted.
Hoongle is a sort of mashup of EcoSearch and FreeRice.com. They are having an issue with donations at the moment, but the idea is that they donate rice for every search.

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