Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wolfram Alpha... and other searches

The big tech/library news lately, it seems, has been asking one basic question: Can anyone beat Google?

My answer: Nope... wait, should I have sugar-coated that one? I'm just confused about why anyone would try, let alone claim that it has been done!

Until you can give the public a search engine that works as well, that builds a niche as well, that fulfills a need as well, you are not going to upset Google.

The latest to try, Wolfram Alpha, is an interesting concept and a nice try, though, ultimately, it does not live up to all the hype. Google gives you everything you could possibly need/want/never want in a link providing search. Wolfram Alpha, on the other hand, sets out to interpret the data and give you only the information you need - often creating a page that never existed before you did the search.

This is great when you have a calculation to make or need some background information. However, I share Farhad Manjoo's concern that Wolfram Alpha is too bug-laden and too narrowly defined to work well as a Google replacement. Some searches work well - like my birthday search (who knew I was born during a full moon?) - but too many others - like my search for the closest QFC to Northwest University - fail.

What does this mean for Librarians?
~ Yet another tool in our arsenal! Though some of the random searches I did failed, I am very refreshed by the ones that worked. The first thing I thought of when I saw its interface was how similar it was to an encyclopedia or a world fact book. If you are looking for specific, concrete data, this is where you should go - hands down. Like Wikipedia, it would be a great electronic resource to use in identifying search terms, figuring out general statistics, or planning a research survey.

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