Wolfram Alpha: A Mathematical Search Engine

By nikguptanikgupta (1254900471|%a, %b %e at %I:%M%p)

I'm not a math geek. I don't even like math that much. Perhaps I should have let someone who was truly mad about mathematics to discover and blog about this search engine, but I couldn't pass it up. Wolfram Alpha Computational Knowledge Engine, or "Wolf" for short, is essentially a number-based search engine.

Disclaimer

From the website's FAQs:

Is Wolfram|Alpha a search engine?
No. It's a computational knowledge engine: it generates output by doing computations from its own internal knowledge base, instead of searching the web and returning links.

So keep that in mind. However, it functions like a search engine, and a google search for [new search engine wolf] returns it as a result. It is functionally a search engine, and looks like a potential competitor to other search engines. So, it's relevant to the search industry. (Prof. Moore, if you disagree, go ahead and give me a big, fat "0" for the grade, but read on anyway because this is an awesome tool.)

Setup

The website's setup is spectacular. It is built so that first-time users can get hooked. Right away, you can see "a few things to try" to get a feel for what the results will look like. I entered a mathematical formula, since that is supposed to be the specialty of this engine, and was blown away by the organization and content of the results. Check them out. You get all of the essential math information, organized very nicely into easy-to-read tables. I'm truly blown away. Unfortunately, I can't link to my own images, but just click the links I give you and you'll get the idea.

wolfram_alpha_3.png

It's Fun, Seriously.

You may think that by limiting a search engine to number or statistic-based results, Wolf is immediately restricting its potential to grow and become a major search engine. I did, particularly after entering my go-to first query [michigan football] and getting nothing in return. But then I clicked the "Examples" tab and started to explore what Wolfram Alpha could do.

  • In class on Monday, we talked about Google FastFlip and other "more visual" ways of getting information. As I mentioned above, the search results are truly aesthetic. The people at Wolfram Alpha realize this strength and made a "visual gallery" of examples that you should check out.
  • I'm obsessed with sports and music, so I checked out, well, the sports and music examples. I had fun with the sports statistics and the musical features. I could see myself visiting this site frequently for help with music theory that Google wouldn't be able to give me without extensive refining of search queries.

Drawbacks

  • Its self-description is accurate; it's not a search engine. It's clunky, and not for everyday search use. Like I said, my [michigan football] search was answered with "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure how to compute an answer from your input." You need to make sure you know what you're looking for when you use Wolf.

Future?

Check out the "About" page for some information. I want to highlight something from their "goals" section:

Wolfram|Alpha aims to bring expert-level knowledge and capabilities to the broadest possible range of people—spanning all professions and education levels. Our goal is to accept completely free-form input, and to serve as a knowledge engine that generates powerful results and presents them with maximum clarity.

There's plenty more on the page about Wolf's long-term goals, but this statement convinces me that Wolf is going to be a force to reckon with. I think its user experience, different database, and different approach to searching will make it a force to be reckoned with in the search industry.

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