Wednesday, May 23, 2012

WotW: The Next Generation of Search Engine

As a technology teacher, I'm always amused whenever I see students doing research. They type whatever they're searching for into Google (for instance, Texas) and expect it to magically tell them everything they wanted to know about the topic. Instead, they're greeted with a laundry list of websites, prioritized by Google's indexing algorithm.

Not sure what to do next, they raise their hands and say, "Sir, I don't think it's working." Of course, we all know it worked just fine. Google is a search engine and as such, it merely searches for sites that seem like they might contain information about the search term you provided. Contrary to popular belief, Google is NOT the source of all knowledge.

But I know what is: WolframAlpha (

I know it sounds like some Twilight-infused video game, but it's quite possibly the most remarkable tool I've found on the Internet.

WolframAlpha looks like a search engine, but it's not. It's a computational database. Or, in plain English, it solves things for you. It's the solution my students expect, but didn't know about until now (truth be told, I still haven't told them about it for fear of what this power might do to them).

Take my Texas search, for instance. Google gave me a list of websites, but when I search for Texas in WolframAlpha, I'm provided with (

... well, information. Useful information. I didn't have to sift through numerous websites. Relevant data is immediately provided to me.

WolframAlpha uses complex mathematical formulas called algorithms, and real-live human experts, to categorize information in a way that can present useful information to the searcher.

OK, so that's cool right? But we're just scratching the surface. Because WolframAlpha is a computational database, it can compute things. Yep, it does math. Remember all those sleepless night agonizing over math problems? Don't worry about it. Simply type your math problem into the search field and it will solve it for you! Really, try it.

It does everything from basic math to complex calculus, all in a matter of seconds and makes it easy to read and understand.

When I was in my college chemistry course, my brain almost lapsed into a stress-induced coma when we were learning about balancing chemical equations. I've since mastered the concept, but at the time it was enough to convince me to change my major. But, you probably guessed it, WolframAlpha can balance chemical equations for you.

It even figures out musical scales and shows you what the scale looks like! When's the last time Google did that for you?

There are a multitude of other uses for WolframAlpha. You have to try it to really grasp it. Perhaps this is the grand cheating tool students have always been looking for, but while it does solve problems, it doesn't necessarily teach you how to do it, and that's what matters on the test.

So, is this the end of Google? No, not by a long shot. To be fair, Google released a feature last week that's a step in this direction, which provides basic results, but it's not quite up to par with WolframAlpha.

Should you stop using Google? Absolutely not. They're really different tools. If you want quick and dirty data or something solved for you, WolframAlpha is your site. If you want to explore and find in-depth information, Google is a good choice. Sure, you have to do the digging, but come on, things can't be that easy, can they?
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