Wolfram Alpha and Google Tested Head-To-Head: Whoever Wins, We WinS

Technology Review did something obvious with their access to Wolfram Alpha: they pitted the computational search engine against Google. The results? As we knew, Wolfram Alpha is no Big G. It's completely different, but fantastic.

Its makers have never appreciated sensationalist "Google Killer!" labeling, and rightly so: Wolfram Alpha excels at interpreting huge data sets, and only at interpreting huge data sets. A revealing taste of this contrast, in practice:

SEARCH TERM: Sydney New York

WOLFRAM ALPHA: I got tables showing the distance between the two cities in miles, kilometers, meters, even nautical miles; a map of the world with the optimal flight path; and the fact that the trip spans 0.4 of the earth's circumference. I learned how long it would take to make the trip: 18.1 hours flying; 13 hours for a sound wave, 74 milliseconds for a light beam in fiber, and 53 milliseconds for a light beam traveling in a vacuum. I also got comparative populations, elevation in meters, and current local times.

GOOGLE: I got a mix of things: a form for finding flights between Sydney and New York; a Google Maps-plotted list of businesses in New York City that contain the word "Sydney"; and links to the municipal government of Sidney, a small town in upstate New York.

It's also a huge nerd:

SEARCH TERM: Aspirin Tylenol

WOLFRAM ALPHA: Alpha gave me molecular diagrams for aspirin and acetaminophen and lots of scientific information comparing their molecular weights, boiling points, vapor pressure, and so forth.

GOOGLE: Usefully (to nonchemists suffering from headaches), the top link was to a Wiki-answers page telling people whether they can take aspirin and Tylenol together. Other links gave information about toxicity, danger to kidneys, and the like.

In other words, Wolfram Alpha is like a beefed-up, research-oriented take on Google's computational extras (stock price, calculator, unit conversion), but with Aspergers.

I'm aware of the theoretical differences between the two, and I'm sure Wolfram Alpha's creators' blood would boil at the thought, but the engine's most natural home might be as a direct complement to Google, as a tab on their homepage or as a replacement for their modest current nonsearch functions. Anyway, TR has plenty more comparative search tests, and they give a pretty full picture of what you can expect when this thing finally goes public. [Technology Review]