Monday, May 18, 2009

Review: Wolfram Alpha and genealogical research

A new hype

In the last days, there has been a lot of commotion surrounding the release of an allegedly revolutionary search engine that according to some would make Google -now the industry leader- more or less superfluous. According to the makers of Wolfram Alpha (, online searches on Google deliver inferior results. So we asked are ourselves, is the hype surrounding this new search engine justified, yes or no? We put it to the test, and asked questions that are relevant to our passion, genealogy.

Wolfram Alpha differs substantially from the google search engine in that it doesn't allow users to just type in a particular word, but only responds to "question". So, for example, users cannot just type in the term "genealogy", but need to formulate a research question. Obviously, this is rather time consuming, in comparion to the easy-to-use, intuitive way in which Googel works.

We put Wolfram Alpha to the test, and asked a set of very basic, simple questions.

To the question "What is genealogy?", one would expect that the result would present us with a link to a site giving a definition of the term "genealogy". However, the result Wolfram Alpha was utterly useless in that it just give us a quasi-synonym of our search term: "relationships"; followed by a number of example of types of relationships.
Second, we asked "What is the address of the archive in Leiden?" Again, the results to this easy question were disappointing, since Wolfram Alpha just stated : Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input.
Finally, we asked a specifically genealogical question. We asked "Who is the mother of Queen Elizabeth" ; a question about a well-known person. Again, Wolfgang Alpha stated: Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input. A useless answer to a straight-forward question.


Google sure isn't perfect, but with a bit of knowhow regarding the search possibilities and with the right search terms, Google manages to deliver results with a content that is more logical and coherent than those produced by Wolfram Alpha. May be Wolfram Alpha is useful in other domains, but for genealogical research purposes this new search engine is utterly useless and anything but revolutionary. This self-proclaimed, digital version of the Delphic oracle fails to live up to its promises and pretensions. Our advice: don't buy into the hype, stick to Google.

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