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Whatever You Do, Don't Call it a Search Engine

New question-answering sites, such as Wolfram Alpha, seek to differentiate themselves from the Googles of the world.
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When web surfers first visit Wolfram Alpha, the question-answering knowledge engine that launched last month, they may confuse it with a search engine. Even if Alpha finds itself fighting for a piece of the same pie as Google, Dogpile and Ask.com, co-founder of parent company Wolfram Research Theo Gray says the project is "emphatically not a search engine."

But in the world of Internet search, one goal stands above all others: to provide an answer to a question. Sounds easy enough, right? In fact, conventional companies, including 64 percent market share owner Google, face a quandary. When users search for a word, a phrase, or even a fully developed question, the result isn't so much an answer as it is a list of potentially helpful links.

Wolfram Alpha, on the other hand, plans to bridge that gap between relevant information and providing an actual answer. Developed by the Wolfram Research team, Alpha uses another Wolfram brainchild, Mathematica, to compute user input before providing an answer. Gray says what differentiates Alpha from a search engine is that instead of aggregating possible solutions, Alpha produces them.

For example, if someone inputs "calories in a cheeseburger" into Alpha, it computes the average calories – 550 calories – as well as offers calorie counts for specific brands and sizes and more. It even synthesizes a version of the nutritional information panel usually found on the labels of store-bought food. Alpha aims to make any computable knowledge readily available, and in that sense, it excels.

For other, less scientific queries, however, Alpha falls short. An input common to search engines, "New York restaurants," for instance, confuses Alpha. It offers a link to search the web for the same input – which takes you to Google.

Gray says these types of questions aren't what Alpha was created for.

"The goal of Alpha is to answer those questions to which nobody has a written answer," he says. "A search engine is kind of like a parent who has been asked to help with homework – Alpha will actually do the work for you."

On top of those brands already competing in the question-answering business, last week saw the launches of Microsoft's Bing, a self-described decision engine, and human-powered Mahalo became Mahalo 2.0, which now offers users a share of the advertising revenue if they help grow and monitor content. In order to stand out, each of these new sites steers away from calling itself a "search engine." Instead, the idea is to highlight the enhanced services that make them innovative rather than repetitive.

"There's a certain amount of overlap," admits Gray, "but there's way more disjoint than there is overlap." After all, Gray adds, "the world doesn't need another search engine."

Last updated: Jun 15, 2009




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