On the 18th May 2009 the BBC reported the launch of Wolfram Alpha. Wolfram is a computational knowledge engine. Alternatively, call it an “answer engine”. It specialises in producing answers to factual questions based on data. The data that it has available is “curated data”. It is in this sense that it earns its keep as a web engine in the same breath as Google. Instead of having a list of documents (from which to draw its answer) it searches the web.
The Times interviewed several salient members of the business and IT communities shortly after the service became widely available. Despite the engine’s creator, Dr. Stephen Wolfram, refusing to engage in the language of battle (denying, in fact, that Wolfram Alpha was a “google killer”) the question that seemed to form on everyone’s lips was whether Wolfram Alpha would displace Google.
To ask this question is to fundamentally misunderstand two things. Firstly, the two are incredibly different services. Whilst Wolfram Alpha will give you an answer, replying on data which has been rigorously checked, Google will direct you to a page which is most likely (according to its algorithms) to have the answer you want on it. Secondly, and indubitably linked to the service, is the target audience. Wolfram Alpha seeks to resolve quandaries. Google instead is a method of discovering information to resolve your own quandary. For these two reasons, Wolfram Alpha can never gain the same widespread use as Google.
Ultimately therefore, it is difficult to see anything other than a grim fate manifesting – but for Wolfram Alpha, not Google. A search engine has a fundamentally commercial aim. Google sells advertising, and so do most others. But Wolfram Alpha struggles to adopt this because the searches it processes do not have good context. For example, if someone searches into Google “coffee shops” the information points to someone who wants to buy coffees. This is sellable. But for someone who searches using Wolfram Alpha “distance to the moon” it is not a sellable piece of information. Without being to sell search information, then advertisements cannot be ‘targeted’. In the 21st century, that is fatal.
An older question?
This explains why Wolfram Alpha falls down. But it does not answer the question we started with; why does Google (seem?) to carry on ticking over whilst other search engines run out of gas? Bing and Yahoo are the most comparable. Whilst it may not be possible to accurately determine market shares it does seem that Google has seized a lead and will not let go.
There is some differentiation. Bing has historically focused on ensuring privacy with its searches and it has an older target age group. It is the youngest of the three leading search engines (founded 1st of June 2009). On the other hand Yahoo (the oldest of the three search engines – founded on the 1st of March 1995 as opposed to Google, which was founded on the 7th September 1998) focuses on trying to create an experience. It is interesting that Yahoo actually offers many features that Google does not; more email storage (one terabyte as opposed to 15GB for google), localised websites by region, and dedicated games. But at one point it relied on Google as the search engine. Moreover, link Bing it is generally used by an older age group.
The fundamental point propelling Google around laps faster than its competitors is that it does what it does better than the other two. Bing may offer a higher tech experience – but for most searches this is not required. Equally, Yahoo may allow the individual to carry out multiple online functions through its unified services, but this should not be the main function of a search engine. Google’s PageRank algorithm means it returns relevant results time and time again. It is a one trick pony; with a very good trick. Because it is the leader in this, overtaking is almost impossible Consequently, it secures itself a powerful stream of income which will allow it to keep making investments. Google has many miles left as the market leader.