Categorized | search engine marketing

So what exactly is Wolfram/Alpha and how does that affect your SEO equation?

Unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool tech geek with an ear to every railroad track, you’ve probably seen or heard the word “Wolfram/Alpha” in only the most fuzzy way as some kind of Google competitor or next-generation something-or-other-maybe-a-search-engine. You may have heard hints that Google plans to take on Wolfram/Alpha at its own game.

What’s this new player on the search scene and, more importantly, do you have to rethink your whole Google-centric search engine marketing strategy?

Not yet. Wolfram/Alpha is, indeed, an entirely new breed of online service, but it won’t remake the world yet.

Wolfram/Alpha, launched officially on Monday by Wolfram Research (the folks who give us Mathematica — but if you know what that is, you probably already know all the inner workings of Wolfram/Alpha, as well), is not a search engine. It is, rather, a “computational knowledge engine.”

No, that’s not a fancy way of saying search engine. It’s a whole different kettle of poisson.

Say, for instance, that you’re on a European ecommerce site about to buy an item for 200 euros. You, of course, don’t think in euros, so you mosey over to Google and type in: “200 euros in dollars.” Google then returns to you a list of sites that will convert euros to dollars (and yen to dollars and marks to dollars and pounds to dollars and so on). You then have to click one of these offerings and input your question into their interface.

Now, instead of all that bother, you can instead take your query to Wolfram/Alpha. You type in the same query, “200 euros in dollars,” and Wolfram/Alpha comes back at you with: “$272.22.”

You may have noticed that Google has started doing the same thing. If, in fact, you type in “200 euros to dollars,” Google will now give you the answer, too. That’s what Google means when it says it’s going to compete head-to-head with Wolfram/Alpha.

But, if you type in a query like, “distance between Los Angeles and Manila,” Google simply returns a list of city distance calculating sites. No answer.

Right now, Wolfram/Alpha can only answer “objective” questions. If you ask it the question, “President of the United States,” you’ll get back the answer, “Barack Obama.” If you input the query, “worst president of the United States” or “best president of the United States,” Wolfram/Alpha will answer that it doesn’t understand your query.

And until Wolfram/Alpha gets more of an act on, there’s really no reason to bookmark the site. Right now the “computational knowledge engine” is stunningly and mind-blowingly unimpressive. If you ask it what the president of Lithuania is, it will dutifully reply, “Valdas Adamkus,” and give you a few pertinent facts. If you ask it who the newly elected president of Lithuania is (elections were held over the weekend), it replies that it doesn’t understand the question. Input the same query into Ask or Google and you’ll get a string of news articles on Dalia Grybauskaitė, elected with a 68% vote on Sunday.

You know, being able to identify the president of the United States is not a shattering new paradigm in networked computing.

Until Wolfram/Alpha can answer user questions queries like “best Mexican restaurant in Pacoima,” “cheapest Nikon DX on the Web,” or even, “who just got elected president in Lithuania,” it will be no competition for Google (or Ask or Yahoo! or MSN Search), which, if they don’t know the answer, at least can direct you to folks who do. (Ask Google about the worst president of the United States and it will return the Wikipedia entry for George Bush plus about six more George Bush pages — and, just to keep things fair, a Newsmax opinion piece about Obama clocking in at number 7 and a Carter piece at number 5.)

So the answer to the Wolfram hype is this: don’t sweat it. (Although it sounds like an oxymoron, you should never sweat another person’s hot air.) As long as it can only answer objective, simple, computational questions, like the distance between Los Angeles and Manila, it has no bearing on your Web marketing. But when it does start answering more subjective questions . . . it could very well revolutionize the Web.

But, personally, my bet is on Google crossing that finish line by several lengths.

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