Amybeth Hale – Research Goddess

Reviewing Wolfram|Alpha
May 20, 2009, 8:00 am
Filed under: Article Reviews, Research, Technology

Wolfram|Alpha, a new search engine that just launched in Mid-May 2009 to the general public, is the talk of our industry right now. Some say that it’s going to be a Wikipedia- or a Google-killer. Others (including me) think it’s neat, but that it’s really just a big calculator at this point. Still others are enjoying playing with it and discovering ‘Easter eggs’ hidden within.

Wolfram|Alpha is “a computational knowledge engine: it generates output by doing computations from its own internal knowledge base, instead of searching the web and returning links.” It’s a fact-machine – you ask it a question, and it will do its best to spit back an answer for you.

When it comes to academia, there are plenty who sing its praises. This will be quite a handy tool when it comes to researching academic matters. For example: if you wanted some quick facts about Winston Churchill:


However, if you wanted to know who just won the most recent Dancing With The Stars, Wolfram|Alpha is going to tell you:


As with any tool of our trade, what you get out of it depends largely on what you put into it. In addition, with Wolfram|Alpha, what you’re looking for is a big factor too. If you’re looking for hard scientific, mathematical, or historical facts, chances are Wolfram|Alpha’s going to help you out. But if you’re looking for current events or assistance with your sourcing efforts, you’re going to be disappointed.

Now, researching companies within an industry – that’s a different story. The database does side-by-side in depth comparison of companies and provides details on # of employees, revenue, etc., and on an individual search basis will also provide you with some basic company information (website, location, industry):


This could prove to be helpful when conducting competitive research within an industry or beginning to build a list of companies to target.

From a sourcing perspective however, the information we seek isn’t contained in its extensive knowledge base – that is, where precisely to find certain types of people for potential candidacy for our open positions. I tested this out, just to make sure:


Nope – not what I was looking for, though this is interesting information, and I believe Wolfram|Alpha will give financial search engines such as Google Finance and Yahoo Finance a run for their money. Wolfram|Alpha will do detailed, side-by-side comparisons of stock symbols where the other two currently do not, at least in great detail.

My assessment is that Wolfram|Alpha isn’t going to make any waves when it comes to useful recruiting tools, at least from a candidate search standpoint. Furthermore, I do not think it will be replacing any major search engines or information sources in the near future. In fact, if you click on the Source Information link at the bottom of the Winston Churchill search, you’ll see that Wikipedia is listed amongst the information sources from which it frequently pulls:


Regardless, Steven Wolfram has come up with a great start to tackling the issue of pure semantic search. (interestingly, plugging ‘semantic search’ into Wolfram|Alpha produces no results) I think this will serve as a good jumping-off point for others to build upon. Check it out and give it a whirl yourself.

4 Comments so far
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Another complaint I’ve heard is that some are unsure of how reliable its information is. Where is it coming from? One example I heard was from Newsy, saying, “Data on my search result page indicated that, in 2003, global human activity led to 27 Gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions. But it also indicated that, in 2000, the US produced 40 Gigatons during cement production alone. One of these has got to be wrong, and Alpha gives you absolutely no way of finding out which …” (originally from Ars Technica)

Comment by Daniel

[…] Reviewing Wolfram|Alpha […]

Pingback by Daily News About Wikipedia : A few links about Wikipedia - Wednesday, 20 May 2009 06:47

Wolfram Alpha is awfully fun to play around with, but I don’t think it can truly be regarded as a “search engine” because that’s not what it does–I don’t think search is its purpose.

As far as I can tell, it takes your input, retrieves what it deems to be relevant data, and performs calculations. I like to think of it as “solve” as opposed to “search.”

Comment by Tamia

Ditto to everything you wrote here. The tool itself is very impressive, but the information is not at the right level for our profession. At least not yet. Wolfram from an educational standpoint is the standard and is embedded in nearly all academics. I’m not too sure alpha will make the cut. 30 years in development. Amazing. I can’t hold my attention long enough to write another line. Great stuff and very detailed work here.

I posted an interview I had with there BD guy a while back if you are interested: Computational Knowledge

Comment by Ryan Leary

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