SEARCH TERM: Cancer New York
WOLFRAM ALPHA: I was expecting statistics on cancer rates in New York. Instead, the Wolfram site assumed I meant the constellation. It showed me where Cancer could be found in the night sky viewed from New York, told me when it would next rise and set, and included a map of the night sky.
GOOGLE: The first link was to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The second was to the New York State Department of Health’s cancer page. The third was to the New York State Cancer Registry. Not bad.
VARIATIONS: Adding a second state (Cancer New York Nevada) confused Wolfram–it didn’t know what I wanted. With Google, all the top results were Nevada-centric: a mix of news stories, lawyers’ websites, and medical centers relating to cancer (the disease) in Nevada. No comparisons, no data, and not as helpful as it was when I just put “Cancer New York.”
SEARCH TERM: Utah Florida population
WOLFRAM ALPHA: Alpha gave me tables containing the two states’ populations from 2006, the population growth rate from 2000 to 2006 (including a chart that I could download), and the number of annual births and deaths in 2004.
GOOGLE: Even though Google just launched a new data-presentation service with access to public census and labor data, this search term did not bring me to the new data service. The first hit was to a U.S. census press release that itself contained links to population tables.
VARIATIONS: When I tried “Utah population,” Google did give me a view of its new service: a simple chart of Utah’s population from 1980 to the present.
When I changed the search term to “Utah Florida,” Wolfram threw the almanac at me, giving side-by-side tables on population data plus high and low elevations of the two states, the dates that the states joined the union, the area of farmland, the household income and poverty rates, and so on. Google gave me random sites that contained the two words, starting with a mapped location of a business in Lake Mary, Florida, that contains the word “Utah.”
Generally, I did not use search terms that clearly had no computable answer (and therefore would have stumped Wolfram). But I also didn’t throw any softballs in areas close to the heart of its makers: physics, chemistry, engineering, and genomics. On hard-core scientific questions, it gives you tons of symbols and graphics and other information that would be useful to a researcher but obscure to most people. But on many common questions for which there is no obvious data element, you will not get much help. In any event, if its plans hold, you should be able to test it out yourself in two or three weeks.