Searching for Search

We all remember using Google this way.

We all remember using Google this way.

Earlier this year, a new idea in search hit the internet: Wolfram Alpha.  Although there was a lot of buzz around it for a couple of months, I didn’t really see what the big deal was.  Wolfram Alpha does take a different approach from Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft’s Bing, the Big Three of search.  Rather than using an algorithm to rank pages based on how often pages are linked to one another, Wolfram Alpha enables the user to search information compile from several databases.

Some of the results are impressive.  For example, type in a city like Columbus, Ohio and you’ll get an encyclopedic snapshot including population, elevation, and current weather.  But Wikipedia can do this better.  Wolfram Alpha does an impressive job making calculations like x^3 sin(y) but Grapher, which is included with Mac OS, does a better job there as well.

Besides some of the interesting Easter Eggs that are hidden within it (See: list, the most popular, the most useful), having all of these capabilities in one place, is handy, but… now what?  Once the excitement had passed, Wolfram Alpha remains, unable to live up to the hype that preceeded it.

Speaking of overhyped search, Microsoft recently unveiled it’s new Bing search engine.  Is it better than Google or Yahoo?  I’m glad you asked.  Try Blind Search, which blindly returns either web or image search results from all three of these search engines and asks you to choose the best one. For example, search for images of Columbus, Ohio and see which search engine returns the best set of results.

The results are a little surprising.  (Warning: some of the searched-for terms in the results may not be work / school safe, but there is no inappropriate imagery.)  In general, the three engines are ranked quite closely, with Google placing first.

Most striking is how simple and effective this process is.  Instead of wondering which search engine is the best, a simple test was devised and data was gathered.  What a great project!  It makes me wonder what other technologies could be pitted head-to-head in a similar way.

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