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How the Wolfram Alpha Search Engine Could Save Google

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Fri, May 8, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Wolfram Alpha, a company whose product you have never used, may turn out to be Google’s best friend.

    For those who haven’t heard yet, Wolfram Alpha is a much-hyped, badly-named computational search engine that gives real answers to queries such as ‘internet users in Europe’ by using structured data sets, rather than messy web pages, as its index. Its demo have impressed quite a few tech journalists, including the originally skeptical Danny Sullivan, one of the crown princes of search engine journalism. (See the screenshot from Read/Write/Web.)

    To put it lightly, Google could use a little competition right now, even if its only from an over-hyped website closed to the public until May 18. Perhaps that’s why Google co-founder Sergey Brin seemed to talk about Wolfram in his letter to shareholders this year.

    I think it will soon be possible to have a search engine that “understands” more of the queries and documents than we do today. Others claim to have accomplished this, and Google’s systems have more smarts behind the curtains than may be apparent from the outside, but the field as a whole is still shy of where I would have expected it to be.

    It’s very clear Brin is trying to tell the world — regulators and antitrust lawyers included — that search isn’t solved. It’s just part of Google’s busy efforts to convince the world that it loves openness and competition — in short that it’s no Microsoft.

    You can see a copy of a Google PowerPoint to that effect over at Silicon Alley Insider, which got it from Consumer Watchdog. That group had an advertising industry an insider tip them off and give them a rebuttal.

    See Anonymous Analysis of Google Charm Offensive.

    Google made this document because the federal government seems inclined to see Google as a monopoly, whatever the company does to grow its business. The first hints came in the resistance to Google’s acquisition of banner ad and online tracking giant DoubleClick. Then Justice Department lawyers were hours from filing an anti-trust suit when Google backed out of a deal to power Yahoo’s ads last fall. And now lawyers are again at Google’s doors, asking about its attempt to build the library of the future.

    So its not surprising that Google is having its lobbyists spider Capitol Hill in order to convince the right lawmakers that its business is only as good as the last click on an AdSense text ad.

    Though Google holds over 70 percent of the search market, it wants the world to believe that some Google-killer is bound to upend it just as it crushed the dreams of Yahoo, Lycos, AltaVista and the other forgotten search engines from the first internet boom. That’s despite the fact that Google kills search startups. Google is even trying to convince the public of it, with a blog post today outlining, wait for it, Googles “six prinicples of competition and openness.”

    Given the flagging fortunes of Yahoo online and Microsoft’s perpetual inablity to translate its dominance of the desktop into an online equivalent, Google NEEDS Wolfram Alpha to succeed. They need it to go through a long-hype cycle, with journalists calling it a Google killer, and distracting regulators. Then once, Yahoo or Microsoft buys it, Google can replicate Wolfram’s useful, but limited functions into Google’s main search system — continuing its world dominance but proving that competition is still alive and well.

    And that’s how a search engine you can’t use yet will become Google’s best friend.

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