Computer scientist Stephen Wolfram gave a report today listing what the team at Wolfram Alpha, his new search engine, did this summer. They added new knowledge domains and over 2 million lines of code, classified 54,233 bugs and suggestions, and generally fixed what doesn’t work. (“Close to half the time that Wolfram|Alpha doesn’t give a result, it’s . . . because it doesn’t understand what’s being asked.”)
What he left out of his school report was the most interesting thing that actually happened to Wolfram Alpha this summer. After long talks, it finally struck a deal with Bing to license some of its data, according to sources close to Wolfram. If nothing else, this is yet another jab at Google, which has a geek rivalry with Wolfram over the growing area of using structured data to improve search results.
In fact, there was buzz among insider search circles back in May that Wolfram was going to be part of the initial Bing launch announcement. At that time, I put the question to Microsoft senior VP Yusuf Mehdi who hemmed and hawed. “We are talking to a lot of different folks,” he told me. The only thing he denied was that Wolfram would be part of the initial launch, which it wasn’t.
The original excitement around Wolfram’s launch quickly died down, whereas Bing’s continued to accelerate (see a comparison graph of both launches). It helps, of course, to have a $100 million marketing budget and be backed by Microsoft, but Bing actually seems to be striking a chord with regular search consumers.
Maybe that is because Wolfram Alpha is not as approachable as Bing. It is good at “computing answers” to arcane questions, and has some very impressive technology under the hood. But it has a long way to go before it can deliver results that really Wow you. As Paul Carr puts it, Wolfram Alpha is the “technological equivalent of a boring uncle; the method was more impressive than the effect, and so the hairs on the back of my neck remain unstood.”
The main problem seems to be one of presentation and effect, areas where Bing does very well. One of Bing’s main strategies is to present different types of information in different ways. Travel search results look different than product or image search results. Perhaps Bing’s deal with Wolfram is to license some of its data to create a specific science category search or a Q&A portion of the site.
Whatever it is, if it turns out to be popular, Bing might end up licensing more data for more categories of search. In the end, Wolfram could have more luck licensing its data to other search engines than bringing people to its site, despite the surge in “fall traffic” Stephen Wolfram is still hoping for.