You can’t so much as sneeze on the web at the moment without hearing about Wolfram Alpha – it is a veritable Swine Flu of the Interwebs – lots of noise, but very hard to sift out real facts. Wolfram Alpha describes its long-term goal as “[making] all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone.” Smells like Google? Perhaps.

Google Search?

It isn’t Google though, and it isn’t trying to be Google either. If you type “Benjamin Ellis” into Wolfram Alpha, you don’t get a list of web pages, you get some curious statistics about the names Benjamin and Ellis:

Benjamin Ellis on Wolfram

And so on… If you want to really understand what WolframAlpha is about, I suggest watching Stephan Wolfram’s Screencast about it (thanks to @ryancarson/Carsonified for the pointer). Stephan is the man behind WolframAlpha, and the reason for its strength in computational data – as  the screencast shows wonderfully.

Google, on the other hand, is a web search engine which has become so successful that it has become THE search engine. That is a little ironic given that Google is really in the advertising business. Once upon a time there were many different ways of searching the web (and in reality there still are), but Google has come to define the way that we think about ‘search’ in the context of the Internet, and what we expect a search engine to do. That’s the power of being a leader.

We’ve even evolved a specific way of interacting with Google that we inflict on other search tools “good places london photograph” “cheap photocopying surrey” – or may be it is just me that does Googlish queries like that? Actually, I’m sure that it is not, based on some of the searches that journalists and bloggers have written trying in WolframAlpha this week.

From Web Search to (Re)Search

No, Wolfram Alpha is more akin to Wikipedia in it’s nature, as Paul Bradshaw points out, but it isn’t that either. Wikipedia is a Wiki. Wikis have an audit trail that enables you to see who made changes and when. Yes, you can click through and see what WolframAlpha used as sources for its calculations, but raw number sources don’t give much of a story.

Wiki entries emerge and evolve organically as people contribute to them. Wikipedia is a means not an end, and very useful if it is viewed as a work in progress. You can click on the “history” tab and see how a page has been modified over time, and who changed fragments of text. There is a discussion page for conversation about the entry, so users can interact without changing it. This kind of background information is invaluable meta-data that gives insight into the provenance of the information, and answers important questions like: Is it controversial? Has it been kept up to date? And so on.

Those same attributes make Wikis great tools for collecting and managing knowledge inside a business, or for working collaboratively with people outside of it. People can interact, make small additions, corrections or deletions. All with a clear audit trail. The collection of knowledge grows organically, and becomes available to anyone with access to the site.

From Data to People

There is something more important hidden in the nature of Wikis. They add a social dimension to information, and to search as well. Knowing who offered a piece of information and where it came from is essential if you need to rely on it. That sounds like a job for social technology.

“when computers were young, people assumed that
they’d be able to ask a computer any factual question, and have
it compute the answer. I’m happy to say that we’ve successfully
built a system that delivers knowledge from a simple input field,
giving access to a huge system, with trillions of pieces of
curated data and millions of lines of algorithms. Wolfram|Alpha
signals a new paradigm for using computers and the web.”
Stephen Wolfram, Wolfram founder and CEO

That sounds very nice, but I think it misses the challenge of managing and accessing knowledge. Very little of what we deal with day-to-day is hard, quantifiable data. Even the things that appear to be, quickly crumble under inspection. It isn’t that there are no hard facts, there certainly are, it is that we rely on heuristics like authority to shortcut the process of fact checking.

We are more connected than we ever have been. Twitter, Facebook and even SMS mean we can get a message out to hundreds of friends and contacts in just a few seconds. These days I will usually send complex questions out via Twitter, rather than searching via Google. The answers I get back aren’t anything like those I’d get from a Google, Wikipedia or even a WolframAlpha. They are tailored to me, and I get them in the context of the person providing the answer. If I asked for good places to take a photograph in London, and I get answers from people I know to be brilliant and experienced photographers, then I’m probably  on to a good thing.

Going Real-Time

Search Twitter for answers then? Well, yes and no. Search Twitter, but not for the reason I’ve just given. If you use Twitter search the results you get are “real time” – as new messages are added  the results update “3 more results since you started searching. Refresh to see them.” bleats the results page.

Twitter search values fresh, recent content; Google search values mature, old content. Pages go up in the Google search result rankings based on how many people have linked to the site, and even how long the site has been around and is registered for. That has served Google well, until now.

As the web moves from a giant document archive to interactions on real-time social media, real-time search is becoming the in-thing, and with good reason. There is a danger that Google may have missed the Real-Time Web, and they know it. At their recent (and excellent) Zeitgeist conference Google’s Larry Page admitted they had done a ‘relatively poor job’ in making the most of real-time trends – even praising Twitter for cornering the market. Twitter isn’t standing still, they are already discussing their plans to extend their real-time search beyond Twitter itself.

Search is evolving, after a long period with little progress. It is no longer one-dimensional. Whilst you can entertain yourself with the Top 10 Easter Eggs in Wolfram Alpha, or these 10 even better ones, it is a tool that aims to give one-time answers, with data. Google will help you find pages on the web. Twitter search will let you explore real-time conversations (or monitor the most popular topics of the moment). Tools like Yahoo! Answers make use of user contributed answers to answer questions. Microsoft are jumping in with a new tool for search as well.

The End of The Beginning

It isn’t clear that Google’s reign is anywhere near over, much as that makes for a good headline. While WolframAlpha might not knock it from the top spot, there is a huge opportunity for new technologies that can embrace the real-time nature of today’s Internet, and link into social concepts related to trust and relevance.

In the mean-time, there is plenty of opportunity to explore a range of search tools to see if they give you better results than the obvious.