Hey, do you all remember www.askjeeves.com? It was the search engine with the quirky butler that gently beckoned you to simply ask your question, rather than pine over the best keywords to use, in order to get your answer. I knew a lot of people at the time who would gleefully enter their question expecting a straight answer.
Anyway, it didn't take long to realize askjeeves.com was just a keyword search engine like every other site. And to get the best results, you were better off pining over keywords. How disappointing.
With this distressing memory in mind, I was pretty excited to hear about WolframAlpha. The site claims that its recognition technology, being a massive database and therefore a fundamentally different construct from keyword engines, allows it to simply answer your questions with a factual answer.
So, I tried some sample question entries. None of the questions are opinion-based: Stephen Wolfram, the site's creator, has already said that it can't answer opinion questions. So, on with the testing:
|Search entry||WolframAlpha result||Google result|
|What is the tallest mountain?||Lists top 5 tallest mountains from sea level||First link has tallest mountain from sea level, overall, and other information about tall mountains|
|What are the Crayola colors?||Can't compute||First link is Wikipedia entry providing list of colors|
|Lead actor in Fight Club?||Can't compute||First link is Wikipedia entry providing information|
|250 * 15||3750||3750|
|$5000 in yen||479800||Not clear (Revision: A reader has informed me that by typing "convert 5000 dollars to yen", Google will automatically calculate this also. I tried it and it works.)|
|Viacom||Stock information||First link stock information, second link corporate website, fourth link Wikipedia entry on company|
|Who are the main characters in Winnie the Pooh?||Can't compute||First link to official site, second a link to descriptions of all the main characters|
|What is the longest a human has lived?||Can't compute||First entry is WikiAnswers with answer|
|U.S. Census||Gives total population, increase rate, life expectancy||Provides link to Census Bureau|
What have I concluded from this test on Wolfram Alpha? In many ways, it's just as much of a disappointment as askjeeves.com was. Every time I actually typed out a question, WolframAlpha got stumped. I should note that I overturned some of the "can't compute" answers by changing my search entry. For instance, when I searched "Fight Club the movie," it yielded a list of the characters. Of course, Google gave me the same information with either search entry.
I have to admit, the money conversion was cool. But, there are sites that exist that can easily convert an amount from one currency to another (and I've found out that Google can do this to by just slightly tweaking the search entry), and that's not what WolframAlpha marketed itself as. I'm sure there are other interesting applications for WolframAlpha (it can be useful if you have trouble quickly identifying which links on a normal search engine will provide the information you need), but I wasn't impressed with my tests. The best way to find the information I need is still through keyword searches (and yes, still through Google), and until something comes along that is truly intuitive, easy to use, and accurate, I don't see any reason to jump ship.
I encourage you to visit www.wolframalpha.com and try out your own searches, and see what you get. It's kind of fun.