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Horizons

Searching for the next Google

By Andrew Heining / April 30, 2009



Just like in real life, things on the Web may not be as permanent as they seem.

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Last week I enjoyed a few clicks down memory lane, looking through Technologizer's list of the top-10 Web properties from April, 1999. Who remembers Lycos? Or AltaVista? Excite? Xoom? Microso– ... oh wait. Even the biggest, traffic-hogging megasites that seem like they're the be-all, end-all of Web presence can fall out of favor and be sold to Time Warner die off.

Today's top dog, with 151 million unique visitors a month, is Google. Where were they in 1999? A small start-up. It was nowhere near the top. Which got me thinking – Google is such a large part of so many people's everyday Web life; what's the next Google?

Now, of course, if I had that answer, I'd be out buying islands or something. But as we've known for a long time, and as fellow Horizons blogger Matt Shaer highlights today, Google's algorithm has its drawbacks.

Google is such a giant company these days, with their fingers in every corner of the Web. But its bread and butter – search – has a fearsome new challenger: Wolfram Alpha.

Now, I know there've been a lot of articles touting Cuil, Blekko, or any of a host of other disgusting-sounding start-ups as "the one to topple Google search." It's a little cutesy sounding, but Alpha isn't about search – it's about answers.

The free tool, launching in May, is the brainchild of British physicist Stephen Wolfram, or, as Wired calls him, "the man who cracked the code to everything."

It uses a "computational knowledge engine," scouring databases and live feeds of information to return one (hopefully correct) answer – rather than a list of possible sites – to queries. "People can use the system to look up simple facts - such as the height of Mount Everest - or crunch several data sets together to produce new results, such as a country's GDP," writes the BBC.

"While search engines like Google, by and large, find things that already exist on the Internet — Web sites, photos, videos, blogs — Wolfram Alpha answers questions, often by doing complex, and new computations," Miguel Helft writes for the NYTimes' Bits blog.

Twine creator Nova Spivek, one of Alpha's most outspoken backers, likens using the system to "plugging into a vast electronic brain."

Wolfram has created a set of building blocks for working with formal knowledge to generate useful computations, and in turn, by putting these computations together you can answer even more sophisticated questions and so on. It's a system for synthesizing sophisticated computations from simple computations.
... I think it has the potential to play a leading role in all our daily lives – it could function like a kind of expert assistant, with all the facts and computational power in the world at our fingertips.

Will Wolfram Alpha slay the Google Goliath? Probably not. But could it prove useful enough to pry Google searchers away from their precious primary-colored routines? Check back in 10 years.

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