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Still Searching

Google is the current king of web searching but we have been promised something even better which can challenge its supremacy for many years. Has it finally happened? Two recent search systems have created some new interest in the area: first, Wolfram|Alpha and second, Microsoft Bing.

So do these new search systems deliver? Well, yes and no.

The first issue regarding Wolfram|Alpha is that it isn’t intended to be a competitor to Google as a general search engine. Anyone who has used it or researches its functions would clearly see this but still the headlines “New Google Killer” have persisted.

So if it isn’t a search engine then what is it? Its more a data analysis and presentation tool attached to a natural language interpreter. Anyone who goes to Wolfram|Alpha expecting to get the same functionality as Google will be disappointed. That doesn’t mean its not as good as Google, it just means it does something different.

I’ve go to say here that I haven’t managed to get anything very impressive out of it so far because the natural language queries I use, which I think should make sense, never do. I only get meaningful results by making slight changes to demo queries they have already provided.

So I think the whole system might be more useful if the user created queries by using a dynamic menu system instead of using natural language. The system already analyses the words the user types into various categories so why not make that process explicit and let the user create the query using options.

So what about Bing? Well its definitely more a Google competitor. Whether its a Google killer is far more open to question. My quick initial testing didn’t reveal any real superiority except the Bing output looked better (although it was remarkably similar to Google’s results).

A general search for “Apple” returned 127 million results from Bing and 433 million from Google. The Google results also seemed more relevant. It showed the Wikipedia entry for Apple on the first page where Bing only showed a Wikipedia entry for the ancient Apple III monitor. Huh?

The Bing results were classified into categories though, such as downloads and reviews, which provided a useful way to get more specific information.

I then tried something a bit more specific and obscure. I searched for “maximum memory apple III”. I used the Apple III because it is an old machine which was obscure even when it was current so it creates more of a search challenge.

The first result for Google was Wikipedia and the summary showed the words from the article indicating the maximum memory was 256K (yes K, no one had a meg of memory back then!) Bing showed some general Apple memory ads, followed by two entries about the Mac LC III then an entry for the real Apple III indicating its maximum memory was 512K.

To be honest, even though I used to program them, I can’t remember what the real maximum was although I know we never had more than 256K in ours and even then they often got too hot and had to be sprayed with “ice in a can” to cool them!

What about more numeric data? I decided to bring Wolfram|Alpha back in on this one since that’s it specialist area. I tried “Apple share price” (in hindsight probably too easy) and got good results from all 3 sites.

Wolfram|Alpha showed the current price ($139.35), a graph for the last year, and the minimum, maximum and average. That was pretty useful. Google and Bing also showed a graph and the associated numbers although the graphs weren’t that useful.

So I didn’t see any real reason to stop using Google although I’m going to test Bing a lot more thoroughly over the next few weeks. Wolfram|Alpha was potentially the coolest because of its comprehensive and accurate output, but accessing that information is harder and it is not a search engine in the same sense as the other two.

In summary, I guess I’d say its business as usual: I’ll still use Google for searching but I will give Wolfram|Alpha the chance to provide numeric data. Bing is still an unknown but at the moment it just looks like a typical Microsoft copy of something someone else already does better.

So the perfect search engine doesn’t exist. I’m still searching for that!

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