Wolfram Alpha Upgrades, Becomes a Viable Google Replacement

This afternoon Wolfram Alpha will release an updated "pro" version of its search engine, just in time for us to give up our Google habit. 

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Tomorrow Wolfram Alpha will release an updated "pro" version of its search engine, just in time for us to give up our Google habit. Rather than switching to Bing, which offers a familiar Google-esque experience, Wolfram's data-driven engine works on a completely different premise. "Wolfram Alpha doesn't just return information, it analyzes and does computation on your inputs and on its own data to provide 'reports' instead of just 'answers," explains The Verge's Dieter Bohn. Instead of scouring the Internet with an algorithm, WA works off of its own curated database. And those results sometimes do one better than a quick Google.

Things Wolfram Alpha Does Better Than Google

Data analysis. Users can upload all sorts of file formats -- audiofiles, spreadsheets, etc. -- and Wolfram Alpha will analyze it, putting it into a report that corresponds to the type of data. Creator Stephen Wolram demonstrated how it worked for The New York Times' Steve Lohr:

In a recent demonstration, Dr. Wolfram, using his computer mouse, dragged in a table of the gross domestic product figures for France for 1961 to 2010, and Wolfram Alpha produced on the Web page a color-coded bar chart, which could be downloaded in different document formats. He put in a table of campaign contributions to politicians over several years, and Wolfram Alpha generated a chart and brief summary, saying that House members received less on average than senators.

Not only does WA organize that information in a visually appealing way that makes sense, but users can also play around with the information and create interactive charts and visuals. Bohn, for example, used WA to create a homicide statistics map of Africa (below) and then using the interactive feature normalized for GDP, "which is pretty cool," he explains.

Image analysis. WA doesn't just look at text queries, but also allows for image uploads. "Once an image is uploaded, the engine will provide interactive reports with histograms, EXIF data, lists of colors with the HTML identifiers, edge detection, optical character recognition for text, a few image filters and effects, and a bit more," continues Bohn.

Contextualize results. With both data sets as well as simpler queries, WA tries to give context to an answer. Unlike a Google search, which surfaces the most SEO friendly option, WA tries to better understand what the user is asking, taking language and semantics into account. The results it gives aren't just one line answers, but reports. Dr. Wolfram explains:

In other words, they don't want to know that the answer to the problem is "42." They want this report that tells them "how does 42 fit into everything else." We had the idea we could generate these reports from the beginning, but I hadn't realized that even if you don't do that, even if it's a slam dunk "here's the answer," people don't really like that. [...] They need it contextualized.

Extended keyboard. This is more of a math nerd thing, but for those looking to type in symbols, WA pro offers this extended keyboard, making it easier to enter obscure symbols.

Things Wolfram Alpha Does Just Like Google

Search history. A new addition to pro, users can get an account at WA that saves a complete history of their queries, uploads and downloads. It's a bit more organized than Google, but both ensure Internet tracking -- for better or worse.

Not just for math nerds. In its early days, WA got the reputation as a search for math nerds, as the engine did computations, something the non-math inclined don't care about on a daily basis. But, WA can also find more mundane information, like movie showtimes. In fact, our favorite personal assistant-bot, Siri, relies on WA for answers to questions that go beyond square roots and integers, such as time zones, holiday dates and other fun science facts.

Things Wolfram Alpha Does Worse Than Google

News gathering. Since WA works off of a built-in database and not the Internet, it does not draw up results to other Internet sites. When Googling, oftentimes we're looking for a specific website. Wolfram Alpha doesn't deliver here. For example, a WA Steve Jobs query provides lots of interesting and true facts on the man. But, no ranty blog posts, fan sites, or eBay action figure auctions -- things of interest to us.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.