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What are you searching for?

May 20, 2009
Image representing Wolfram Alpha as depicted i...
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Everybody is talking about Wolfram Alpha:  it’s new, changing all the rules, is it a competitor for Google, is it not a competitor for Google, will it need some regulation over data delivered and will it be able to answer ANY question? Working in the legal industry means that a large part of my focus is to see how it is perceived by lawyers and legal professionals – is this going to be a useful tool for the legal industry?

Opinions vary though mostly all positive: futurlawyer has been reporting on it enthusiastically for the past few days, Greg Lambert, from LawGeekBlog gave an interesting review, focusing specifically on the relevancy to the legal industy. All in all, the social media arena is flooded with data streams heralding as well as questioning the deliverability of the product.

The question ‘what is a user after when searching the web’ is the 100 billion dollar question that whoever answers will ‘win’ the web. This is a tricky question as there are hundreds of search tasks and ‘mind sets’, and there is no one single answer.  Many people have already mention that an answer based search cannot replace a wide search – i.e. Wolfram Alpha replacing Google – because the purposes of the two are so vastly different they actually complete each other.

The popular example of ‘Apple’ search used so often in semantic web discussions is a great example: how would you know if a user was looking for information about the fruit or  ‘Apple‘ the company if they only typed ‘apple’ into the search box? Indeed Wolfram Alpha’s key proposition is the ability to deliver very precise answers based on very precise questions.  And still it seems, if Wolfram will deliver it’s promise to give the most precise answer to any question, that the next step is an amalgamation of specific as well as wide search.

[Update] Last year saw YahooGlue launched in India to try and cover all interpretations and results format in one page. Searching for Apple? You’d get links to the brand, the fruit, the symbol, you’d get articles, videos, photos, reviews. Though promising, one year after launch, looks like it didn’t take off.

Taking that into consideration, and seeing how we’re all so excited from a single answer search engine, one has to wonder if the general trend is for a single result search or a wide one to cover all references, opinions, etc? If so, what does it say on culture of information consumption – we want one answer to a question, no time to read further research, check, get a wider view, supportive evidence.

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