It turns out that there is room to compete with Google. Two services have turned up that look like interesting alternatives for online searches.
You know what it means to search for something in Google: put in a search term, get a list of results. Frequently the top result is the site you were looking for or has the information you need. That will continue to be the way we do searches for a long time to come.
We are, however, increasingly likely to be looking for something that’s more than just a link to some other site. Think about information about traveling: you might be looking for the best air fares, or for maps, or for lodging, or for tourist information, or for all of them. A Google search will reliably get you a map, a link to a Wikipedia article, and the local chamber of commerce, but it isn’t going to do much to pull the information together for you. At the moment we don’t expect it to do that. The new services will raise our expectations in certain areas.
On June 3, Microsoft will roll out www.bing.com, a new search engine that is explicitly not intended to compete with Google. Microsoft has been losing the head-to-head competition with Google for years with Live Search and its predecessors. The new site is a search service but it is going to be presented as a “Decision Engine,” the kind of marketing term that makes me grind my teeth. Despite that (and despite the name “Bing,” which might be enough to sink the service by itself), there are some things that look very tempting.
Bing can be used for general searches but it is really intended for focused searches in specific areas. When it rolls out, it will focus initially on “making a purchase decision, planning a trip, researching a health condition or finding a local business.”
A search for Paris, France produces a screen like this (the name “Kumo” was used internally at Microsoft during testing):
It’s the list at the left that’s interesting – links for Events, Weather, History, Airport, Map, and related searches, all a single click away.
Similarly, using the service as a starting point for shopping brings up a page that is optimized for shopping and comparing prices and features and accessories, not just a list of links to bizarre online stores.
Meanwhile, Wolfram Alpha was introduced a couple of weeks ago as something different than a search engine. Very smart people created a service that can compute answers to certain kinds of numeric and scientific questions and present the answers in elegant ways. It’s a little hard to pin down the areas where it’s effective but it’s worth spending some time to figure it out. Here’s one attempt:
Wolfram Alpha actually computes the answers to a wide range of questions — like questions that have factual answers such as “What is the location of Timbuktu?” or “How many protons are in a hydrogen atom?,” “What was the average rainfall in Boston last year?,” “What is the 307th digit of Pi?,” or “what would 80/20 vision look like?”
Think about that for a minute. It computes the answers. Wolfram Alpha doesn’t simply contain huge amounts of manually entered pairs of questions and answers, nor does it search for answers in a database of facts. Instead, it understands and then computes answers to certain kinds of questions.
(Update: in fact, Wolfram Alpha doesn’t merely answer questions, it also helps users to explore knowledge, data and relationships between things. It can even open up new questions — the “answers” it provides include computed data or facts, plus relevant diagrams, graphs, and links to other related questions and sources. It also can be used to ask questions that are new explorations between relationships, data sets or systems of knowledge. It does not just provides textual answers to questions — it helps you explore ideas and create new knowledge as well).
Wolfram Alpha has an extraordinary ability to handle math and science questions and calculations, and has deep capabilities in technology, geography, weather, cooking, business, travel, people, music, and more. The syntax for questions is different than a Google search – it takes some practice. But this is the kind of search result that you can’t get with Google – just put in a date.
There was no shortage of coverage of Wolfram Alpha’s release; here’s one lengthy article about the new service and how it relates to other search engines. Wolfram Alpha has a visual gallery of examples that is fascinating to browse.
Google will continue to be our search engine most of the time but keep an eye out – sometimes there may be a better way to get the results you need.