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(See answers to readers’ queries, submitted in response to this article, here.)

Last week, as physicist Stephen Wolfram was demonstrating his new Web-based “computation engine”–Wolfram Alpha–to the public, Google announced a data-centric service of its own. Alpha accesses databases that are maintained by Wolfram Research, or licensed from others, and deploys formulas and algorithms to compute answers for searchers.

Using some prelaunch log-in credentials provided by the Wolfram team, I decided to run my own Wolfram Alpha versus Google test. I used a handful of search terms that could produce data-centric answers and tried variations in a few cases to see what might happen.

This was an effort to get beyond the characterizations and produce some real data. I also wanted to explore the claims made during my visit to Wolfram Research last week: that Alpha can add unique value in computing answers based on your search queries.

Here’s what I entered, and what I found.

SEARCH TERM: Microsoft Apple

WOLFRAM ALPHA: I got side-by-side tables and graphics on the stock prices and data on the two companies, plus a chart plotting the price of both stocks over time.

GOOGLE: The top hits were mostly news stories, from major and minor publications, containing both words.

VARIATION: When I changed the Google search term to just “Microsoft” or just “Apple,” I got a chart with today’s stock price up top; when I clicked that link, I received tons of information–comparable to what Alpha provides–but only on the single company.

SEARCH TERM: Sydney New York

WOLFRAM ALPHA: I got tables showing the distance between the two cities in miles, kilometers, meters, even nautical miles; a map of the world with the optimal flight path; and the fact that the trip spans 0.4 of the earth’s circumference. I learned how long it would take to make the trip: 18.1 hours flying; 13 hours for a sound wave, 74 milliseconds for a light beam in fiber, and 53 milliseconds for a light beam traveling in a vacuum. I also got comparative populations, elevation in meters, and current local times.

GOOGLE: I got a mix of things: a form for finding flights between Sydney and New York; a Google Maps-plotted list of businesses in New York City that contain the word “Sydney”; and links to the municipal government of Sidney, a small town in upstate New York.

VARIATION: When I tried “Sydney New York distance” (adding the word “distance”), Wolfram gave me only the distance information mentioned above while Google gave me links to distance-finding websites. I opened the first one, was able to enter “New York” and “Sydney” in some forms, and wound up with much the same information provided by Wolfram (but without the light-beam and sound-wave details).

SEARCH TERM: 10 pounds kilograms

WOLFRAM ALPHA: The site informed me that it interpreted my search term as an effort to multiply “10 pounds” by “1 kilogram” and gave me this result: 4.536 kg2 (kilograms squared) or 22.05 lb2 (pounds squared).

GOOGLE: Google gave me links to various metric conversion sites.

18 comments. Share your thoughts »

Credits: Wolfram Research

Tagged: Communications, Web, Google, search, search engine, Wolfram Alpha, search engine optimization, computational infrastructure

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