Yesterday’s release of “computational knowledge engine” Wolfram Alpha generated a lot of debate, with some folks falling over themselves to praise it, while others poured cold water on it.

Wolfram Alpha launches

To try to cut to the chase I thought I’d ask a few of the UK’s search industry ninjas to comment. So is it a Google killer, or just Cuil MKII? Here’s what they had to say…

Teddie Cowell, SEO Director at Guava

“We love it. Unlike some of the search community that have been giving it a hard time and comparing it to Google, we are completely aware that it is not intended to be a search engine in the traditional sense.  Comparing Wolfram Alpha to Google is like comparing chalk and cheese.

“It’s quite clearly stated as a computational knowledge engine, and although it does really lack a lot of data and functionality it can do some really incredible things.

“Yes – it lacks enough data sources. Yes – it cannot compute anywhere near enough things yet. Yes – the servers are getting constantly overloaded. But as we expected we are blown away the maths processing functionality, overall the results that do work are excellent, and when it does load it’s quite a well polished presentation of the results. We will be trying to contribute in order to make it better.”

Feedback from Andreas Pouros, COO, Greenlight

“While I can see what Wolfram Alpha is trying to achieve, (both enviable and interesting), it isn’t really that impressive when the search mechanism is restricted to selected databases and feeds. 

“The general approach is sound – using structured data from vetted sources to build a searchable knowledge base with a computational edge. However, semantic search will make this something that can be very easily replicated and therefore will mean that other search engines can emulate and surpass Wolfram’s approach without even having to build the functionality beyond processing semantic tags. 

“To be fair, Wolfram Alpha isn’t claiming to rival Google. So, not a ‘Google killer’ as has been reported, but a useful experiment in information retrieval. If you search for ‘expenses scandal’ Wolfram returns no results, whereas Google returns 4 million. When people search they want answers, but often the answers can’t be found in vetted sources, so semantic mark-up across all web documents is critical.

“A Google killer would need to embrace the semantic web and be instrumental in creating it. It would need to be something that finds a way to factor in reader sentiment and social media, spider the web and also have a marketing budget in multiple millions, with an even bigger tech infrastructure budget. Wolfram has none of these things.

“Also worth noting is that Google already has an answer of sorts to Wolfram Alpha in Google Squared, which tries to compile data in a more factual, tabulated format for comparison rather than in the usual text snippet approach, but does it automatically without requiring armies of staff like Wolfram. Wolfram clearly has a long way to go to become useful.”

Paul Doleman, CTO at iCrossing

“I am really enjoying it. Think encyclopaedia analogies – Wikipedia steps in and kills Encarta / Britannica / Collins et al. Wolfram feels just as revolutionary as a super powerful research tool and could attract the interest of serious research professionals – and general public alike – and make sense of all that unstructured, disconnected data out there on the Internet. 

“If something can access those unstructured islands of data, make sense of them, categorise and neatly label and throw them into a database then maths geniuses like Stephen Wolfram can unlock them and turn that data into information with powerful results.

“The sheer speed at which the engine interprets requests and presents interesting information alone is impressive, but Wolfram really comes into its own when you throw together several items for comparison.

“Wolfram will harvest more and more data, incorporate clever linguistics, incorporate semantic research, boost the presentation of results and increase the overall algorithmic intelligence (right now only possible through breakthrough maths that interprets data – not links). When this all comes together, it will undoubtedly touch consumer journeys and go mainstream.

“Right now it is breakthrough maths, a brilliant tool, fascinating for research purposes and powerful enough to evoke a response from Mountain View with announcements like Google Squared and their similar goals. Just perhaps we have seen the end of the beginning of Google’s dominance, even though there’s still a long way to go before we reach the end of the end, but Wolfram has fired the first salvo in next generation search.”

Andrew Girdwood, head of search at bigmouthmedia

“Wolfram Alpha shows people there are other ways to think about search and that’s important. Everyone should visit Wolfram Alpha at least once. To try it and look for one of the Easter Eggs.

“It is wrong to compare Wolfram Alpha to Google in a head to head way. They’re different creatures. Wolfram Alpha shows the PR battle Google faces. There’s a hunger for competition. In some cases there’s a rather mean-spirited desire for Google to bellyflop.

“Wolfram Alpha was a trending term on Twitter. Can you imagine how awesome a Wolfram Alpha that analysed the Q&A responses of Twitter tweets would be?”

Andy Heaps, Head of SEO at Latitude Group

“Wolfram Alpha couldn’t help me in finding cheaper car insurance. However, when I needed to know the number of vertices of a truncated icosahedron it did the job brilliantly! That optimises everything about the perception of Wolfram Alpha – it’s not a Google killer, it’s not a Google competitor, and was probably never meant to be – its self-proclaimed long term goal is to make ‘all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone’.  

“The already well-known ‘Wolfram Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input’ will probably soon be synonymous with Twitter’s ‘fail whale’ unless people start using it for what it should be used for. I can’t imagine people ‘Wolframming it’ but I do think it has the potential it becoming the default engine for facts and figures based searches.”

It’s early days yet, and perhaps too early to make any firm judgements, but what are your first impressions of Wolfram Alpha?

[Image by david.orban on Flickr, various rights reserved]