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John Stokdyk

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Technology editor

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Wolfram and Bing – Google killers or also-rans?


To most people, a search engine is a search engine, and it usually starts with a "G". But in the past month two new entities have emerged to challenge the global dominance of Google. John Stokdyk reports.

The most recent launch is, a revamped version of Microsoft Live Search backed with a $100m marketing budget.

The other contender, Wolfram Alpha, has a smaller budget, but as a "computational" system, it introduces a new approach to search, where it assembles information to answer the queries typed in, rather than spitting out a barrage of links.

A British scientist, Dr Stephen Wolfram, has been working on the underlying computational modelling for more than 20 years, and it is now available on the web harnessed with a interpreter that works out what the query is about and then assembles the most relevant information.

The engine is particularly good at returning factual information such as distances, stock prices and historical dates. It also appears to have a grasp of popular culture and a sense of humour. Typing in "How many roads must a man walk down" prompts the reply, "The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind (according to Bob Dylan)".

Asked "What is the answer to everything?" Wolfram returns "42 - according to Douglas Adams' humorous science fiction novel Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

Getting used to Wolfram requires a bit of trial and error, and some random searches produced a worrying number of data dead ends. Hardly a Google-killer, then, but a refreshing change to the usual pile-'em-high search results. If you are researching particular topics - market research, or homework, for example - it could prove to be quite useful.

Even Microsoft has to admit that Bing is hardly likely to topple Google from its throne, but already it is said by some web analysts to have overtaken Yahoo! in the global search rankings. Remember, this was the company Microsoft was willing to pay $40m to acquire, so it's not a bad return on a $100m investment.

Bing is essentially a makeover of the old Live Search system, which has gained a new "quick view" feature to preview the pages and videos featured in search results. Like Google, Bing displays a line of different search categories across the top of the screen - Web, Images, Videos, Shopping, Maps, and More. But unlike Google, it includes related results on the left hand side of the screen.

Reactions on UK Business Forums tended towards the cynical. “The difference between Bing and Live are negligible, and I can't see their market share increasing to a level where I'll spend time and effort optimising my site for it at the (potential) expense of Google ranking positions,” commented "Scott SCD".

Noting that Bing stands for "But It's Not Google", internet commentator Seth Godin's blog took Microsoft to task for misdirecting its R&D efforts.

"The problem, as far as I can tell, is that it is trying to be the next Google. And the challenge for Microsoft is that there already is a next Google. It's called Google. Google is not seen as broken by many people, and a hundred million dollars trying to persuade us that it is, is money poorly spent," Godin wrote.

Instead of trying to be the next big thing, Microsoft should invest in developments designed to be "the other, the changer, the new".

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John Stokdyk

Technology editor

Read more from John Stokdyk

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