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WolframAlpha Bets on Standing Out From the Pack

After an initial flurry of interest, can WolframAlpha keep up its momentum in the face of Google's continued dominance and Microsoft's recent Bing push?

The search engine's high-profile launch in May got a lot of attention for its innovative approach to search -- but perhaps became just as notable for what it couldn't do. Unlike Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO), Bing and other popular mainstream search engines, WolframAlpha doesn't attempt to provide answers to every possible query. Instead, it provides precise answers where it can and tells you when it can't.

WolframAlpha's stated long-term goal is to "make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone." It does a particularly good job leveraging structured data.

But give it a query like: "What's the movie with Angelina Jolie?" and you'll get a very un-Google-like response of "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input" and a few suggestions of how to pursue the search further. Google offered over 20 million results for the same query.

"I think what a lot of people missed about the Wolfram announcement is that it's really a very special interest tool; they're not the search engine that wants to compete head-on with Google and Yahoo," Hadley Reynolds, director of search and digital marketplace technologies at IDC, told InternetNews.com.

"They want to provide a computational engine that helps people get really good answers quickly. That's a tall order in of itself to do it at scale because people can ask anything."

Reynolds credits WolframAlpha with being brave enough to admit when it doesn't have the answer.

"When you use it, you feel the boundaries right away when it doesn't give you an answer," he said. "Google and Bing would never do that because they want to provide a whole variety of answers that support ads. So the nature of how they approach the business is very different for Alpha Wolfram."

Peter Overmann, a director at Wolfram Research, said the company has a unique set of data collections that continues to evolve.

"People sometime confuse WolframAlpha with Web search," Overmann told InternetNews.com. "We're not just delivering data, we analyze the query in real-time to provide answers very targeted to what the user is asking on the fly."

Detailed financial profiles

Those answers will get better as the system grows and learns from a growing set of queries, said Overmann. The company also licenses outside data sources like Xignite's financial market data.

"The more data you plug into WolframAlpha, the more powerful it gets over time," Joel York, chief marketing officer at Xignite, told InternetNews.com. "Already, if you just type in a [public] company name, you can get a detailed financial profile that people would typically go to a Thomson Reuters or some specialized service to find."

York says Xignite's real-time Web services deliver targeted financial information ncluding currency exchange rates and stock information.

One simple example: Type in a phrase like "$476 in euros" and Alpha Wolfram will give you the equivalent in U.S. dollars, $338.26. Or you can ask: "What is IBM's dividend per share in euros?" And get a single correct result.

[cob:Special_Report]Overmann said WolframAlpha is still developing its business model but the company is looking at producing vertical versions for specific industries or market segments.

IDC's Reynolds thinks more deals like the one with Xignite make sense because it'll help WolframAlpha stand out in areas where there is strong interest in access to specific types of information.

"Wolfram can say if you want to look at the market cap of any company or the profit per share, you can use our engine with an English-language query," he said. "So that's a good partnership because so many people want to know what's going on in the markets these days."

"The biggest contribution WolframAlpha's making, to my mind, is that they are taking on this notion of whether you serve up a set of links or focus on the answer," he added. "It's great that they can bring you a graph and a couple of data points to see right away. This is something the big search engines, and Google in particular, have been slow to introduce. Instead of answers, you get links to investigate further."

Other search engines, notably Ask.com, have also tried to differentiate themselves with a focus on answers leveraging structured data sources.

"Search engines are trying to do as much as they can with structured data because you can get some pretty impressive results rather than the old dull blue links," Gartner analyst Allen Weiner said. "That's what Wolfram is all about -- getting that information from structured sources and parsing it into something that makes for a more relevant user experience."