The much hyped “computational knowledge engine” Wolfram Alpha launched over the weekend to what can only be described as a mixed reaction.  I played with it for a few hours and came away with two primary thoughts:

  1. Wolfram Alpha is something completely new, and that is fascinating.
  2. Everything about Wolfram Alpha is going to be compared to Google, and the engine will suffer due to the comparison.

And now for something totally different.

Wikipedia has been around forever, but I still occasionally go on Wikipedia binges where I’ll search for something and then end up following various links and learning lots of things I didn’t intend to.  Wolfram Alpha inspires similar explorations.  Starting from the examples page, here is a list of some random things I learned about as a way of showing what the engine is like:

Pretty cool, huh? I love Wolfram Alpha’s user interface, with its focus on visual search results.  And I love the way it encourages you to explore.

Will people use it?

While I find Wolfram Alpha fascinating, there are certainly idiosyncrasies.  You will simply not get results for a great many of your searches and you will run into strange results at times.   The site is clearly not yet a finished product, and this will frustrate some.

But I think the biggest challenge is the point of reference many users will bring when using the new engine.  Most of the reviews I read focused on comparing Wolfram Alpha to Google, and found it lacking.  Indeed, it seems that the first thing a lot of people did when playing with Wolfram Alpha was search for their own name, which isn’t really the point of the tool.  Fast Company sums up the problem pretty well in its article titled “Wolfram Alpha Isn’t Google, so Stop Comparing Them.”

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.  Google is so dominant in the search space that a service interruption recently caused a 5% drop in overall Internet traffic.  Most of us have used Google so often for so long that if you put a search box in front of us and ask us to type something, we can’t help but compare the results we get to Google.  Google is our defining search experience.

In my mind, Wolfram Alpha isn’t really a Google competitor, any more than Wikipedia is.  I see it as something totally new, that can enrich my search experience when used as a complement to my daily Google use.  This shouldn’t be seen as Wolfram Alpha vs. Google, as I don’t see it as a zero sum game.  Unfortunately, I think most others do see it as an either/or proposition, in which case it is going to be difficult for Wolfram Alpha to truly catch on among general users.

What do you think?

About the Author
Todd Zeigler
Todd Zeigler serves as the Brick Factory’s chief strategist and oversees the operations of the firm. In his sixteen year career in digital, he has planned and implemented campaigns for clients including the Pickens Plan, International Youth Foundation, Panthera, Edison Electric Institute, and the American Chemistry Council. Todd develops ambitious online advocacy programs, manages crises, implements online marketing strategies, and develops custom applications and software. He is bad at golf though.