Jun 16, 2009

Wolfram Alpha v Google: Which is better?

Wolfram Alpha is designed to answer complex search queries by returning a single result. Unlike Google, which searches the entire web for the keywords contained within a search query and then returns thousands of relevant web pages, Wolfram Alpha aims to understand the question and return the correct answer by mining its vast database of information and statistics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wolfram Alpha excels when it is presented with queries pertaining to specific statistics, equations or quantifiable mathematic data. The response from web users has been mixed, with some praising Wolfram Alpha for its powerful search capabilities, and others left disappointed by the answers it has returned.

Stephen Wolfram, the website’s creator, said that in the first 24 hours of Wolfram Alpha going online, he had received 10,000 feedback messages from users.
“The feedback has been insightful and entertaining,” he said. “[Users have] offered lots of suggestions, from additional domains and analysis to computations that have gone awry.”
While Wolfram Alpha handles equations and formulas with aplomb, it is of little use to those seeking answers to more general questions, such as the local showing times for the new Star Trek film (thought it does provide a cast list).
Indeed, the feedback makes for amusing reading, and demonstrates some of the areas that Wolfram Alpha will need to improve on if it’s ever going to truly compete with the giant of search, Google.

Here, are the 10 search queries and see how Wolfram Alpha performs compares to Google:
1) What is the weather in Edinburgh?
Wolfram Alpha: Wolfram Alpha’s grid-style way of presenting results is not as satisfyingly visual or immediate as Google’s take on this question. However, it does provide the current temperature, conditions, relative humidity and wind speed. Where it really comes in to its own, though, is with masses of historical weather data for the city – did you know it was 70 degrees in Edinburgh on this day in 1992?
Google: Google returns 4,340,000 results, but it also provides an at-a-glance weather report for the region, complete with current temperature and three-day forecast.
Which site is best?: For sheer ease of use, Google wins hands-down – definitely the most useful if you just want to know whether it’s rainy or sunny. Wolfram Alpha deserves praise though for automatically serving up historical facts.
Wolfram Alpha 1 Google 1
2) Who was Henry VIII?
Wolfram Alpha: Oh dear. Wolfram Alpha falls down here, providing only the most basic biographical information about King Henry VIII, such as date of birth and date of death. It tells us nothing of his involvement in the dissolution of the monasteries, his marriages, his break from the Catholic church nor any other of the nuances of history. His reign is not even contextualised in terms of who he succeeded and who succeeded him.
Google: Google returns a whopping 2,980,000 results, but fortunately, the first link is to a fantastic educational website dedicated to the Tudors, which provides plenty of background on Henry. A number of other reputable history websites also appear on the first page of results, making the whole search very straightforward.
Which site is best?: If it’s dates of "hatching and despatching" you’re after, then Wolfram Alpha comes out on top. But it lacks any historical context, even in the purest statistical or factual sense. On this occasion, Google is much more helpful.
Wolfram Alpha 0 Google 1
3) What is the population of the UK compared to the population of Australia?
Wolfram Alpha: Wolfram Alpha reports that the population of the UK according to 2007 figures was 60.8 million people, while the estimated population of Australia in the same period was 20.7 million people. The UK population is approximately 2.93 times the size of Australia.
Google: Google returns 23.8 million web pages. The first result is a Wikipedia page about England, which gives the estimated UK population as 60 million, as of 2006. The second hit is a BBC page about Australia, which lists a population of 21 million according to the UN’s 2008 figures.
Which site is best?: Wolfram Alpha gave the answer straight away, although the use of 2007 statistics rather than more current available data was a little surprising. It only took a few minutes to sift through Google’s results to find the same answer, but again, the differing age of the statistical data was potentially problematic. Wolfram Alpha came out on top here.
Wolfram Alpha 1 Google 0
4) What is 46km per hour in feet per second?
Wolfram Alpha: Lightning-quick, Wolfram Alpha tells us that 46km per hour is equal to 41.92 feet per second. It also helpfully tells us this speed in metres per second, miles per minute and even knots.
Google: Although Google can do lots of conversions and calculations straight from its search bar (eg, “1.8m in ft”), this one had it stumped at first. But remove the abbreviations and spell everything out in full, and it will immediately deliver the correct answer.
Which site is best?: Wolfram Alpha once again gets extra kudos for pre-empting further conversions you might need and giving you the answers as part of the initial results page. Google gets there eventually, although the fact that you can use abbreviations for some conversions and calculations but not for others is somewhat confusing.
Wolfram Alpha 1 Google 0
5) Plot Ai(x)
Wolfram Alpha: I’m not even sure what I’m asking Wolfram Alpha here, but it responds in an instant with two graphs, which I am sure make a great deal of sense to a maths genius.
Google: Poor old Google is as baffled by this question as I am. First it suggests I am wrong ("Did you mean: plot Y (x)?"), then it delivers 674,000 results of varying degrees of uselessness. Interestingly, though, the fourth result it returns for this question is a link through to... yes, Wolfram Alpha, thus demonstrating it would have been quicker to use the new search engine in the first place.
Which site is best?: Undoubtedly Wolfram Alpha, although Google does point you in the direction of the correct answer.
Wolfram Alpha 1 Google 0
6) Characters in Star Wars
Wolfram Alpha: It’s an epic fail for this new search engine, which responds to the question with a Spock-like “Wolfram Alpha
isn’t sure what to do with your input”.
Google: The first result is a link through to a Wikipedia page which lists (in exhausting, alphabetical detail) a complete list of Star Wars characters.
Which site is best?: Google excels at these sorts of queries, while Wolfram Alpha, despite its brains, is left trailing in its wake. Wolfram Alpha 0 Google 1
7) Highest mountain
Wolfram Alpha: Surprisingly, Wolfram Alpha returns no results for this. I realise it’s a question of semantics; trying again with the search term “tallest mountain” returns a list of the five tallest mountains (which you can expand to 10) and their height in feet. There’s no automatic option to convert this to metres or any other unit.
Google: Google is less sniffy about language, pulling up a Wikipedia list of the “highest mountains” as its first result. The list of 100 mountains includes height in feet and metres, coordinates, the mountain range in which the tallest peak appears, dates of first ascent, and a host of other pertinent trivia. It’s a far more comprehensive list than anything Wolfram Alpha came up with. Which site is best?: Somewhat unexpectedly, Google – or rather, Wikipedia – excels here, offering bags of information at the click of a mouse. Wolfram Alpha certainly answers the question (as long as you phrase it the right way), but it brings little else in the way of facts or data to the table.
Wolfram Alpha 0 Google 1
8) What’s the frequency Kenneth?
Wolfram Alpha: Wolfram’s answer to this “question” (in fact, the title of an REM song) is somehow completely wrong but utterly delightful. It interprets my question as being about the number of babies named Kenneth born in the United States – quite literally, the frequency of Kenneths per year.
Google: Google by no means provides the definitive answer, but it does link through to videos of the REM song, a Wikipedia entry telling the story behind the track, and links to copious lyrics sites.
Which site is best?: Google gets closest to answering this vexing question, but Wolfram Alpha, I’m afraid, doesn’t even recognise there’s a song by this name.
Wolfram Alpha 0 Google 1
9) 1-5795-5008-8
Wolfram Alpha: Immediately recognises this as a bar code, and generates an image, as well as its corresponding 13-digit ISBN number.
Google: Leaps in to calculation mode, interpreting the dashes between numbers as minus signs, and coming up with an answer of -10,810. Interestingly, though, the first link in the results list it generates is to Wolfram Alpha.
Which site is best?: Wolfram Alpha is on the money within seconds. Google gives it a good go, but is wide of the mark.
Wolfram Alpha 1 Google 0
10) Best pizza in London
Wolfram Alpha: Even geeks need to eat every now and again, but Wolfram Alpha is no help at finding the best place in London to get a deep pan pizza.
Google: Google returns more than 1.6 million possible answers, with plenty of links to restaurant reviews and internet forums where people have recommended good pizza restaurants. It doesn’t give a definitive answer, but with a little digging, web users will be able to quickly find somewhere to go for dinner.
Which site is best?: Google wins this one, but we still eagerly await the day it provides a precise answer to these sort of questions rather than just tantalising possibilities.
Wolfram Alpha 0 Google 1
Final score: Wolfram Alpha 5 Google 6
Conclusion: It’s clear that Wolfram Alpha excels at complex number-crunching, computation and calculations, while Google is better at popular culture, location-awareness and crowdsourcing. Wolfram Alpha is certainly not ready to replace Google, but there will be plenty of occasions where web users are better-served “Wolframing” the query rather than Googling it.

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