Practical Ecommerce

Wolfram|Alpha: A Search Engine Not Ready for eCommerce Merchants

Wolfram|Alpha is a search engine that aims to deliver answers to factual queries. Many search-engine-optimization blogs have referred to Wolfram|Alpha, and one colleague of mine – a sharp SEOer, and evidently a total SEO geek – even professed on Facebook to having “Wolfram|Alpha Fever.” But, is Wolfram|Alpha a valid search engine? Do ecommerce merchants need to reevaluate their search priorities because of it? Is Google dead?

What Is Wolfram|Alpha?

Let’s step back a moment, and look at exactly what Wolfram|Alpha is. It defines itself as a “computational knowledge engine” and its aim is to “bring expert-level knowledge and capabilities to the broadest possible range of people – spanning all professions and education levels…and to serve as a knowledge engine that generates powerful results and presents them with maximum clarity.” In other words, the engine takes factual queries and renders answers. The results are not necessarily based on web page results or a database of encyclopedic information, but presumably on some combination thereof.

Does It Apply to eCommerce?

It’s heady stuff to be sure, and in the future it may prove to be an important Internet tool. But does Wolfram|Alpha have any bearing on ecommerce? The answer is, at present, no, for the following three primary reasons.

  1. No Shopping Results. There are simply no results for common search terms used in the process of shopping. This isn’t the primary focus of Wolfram, but one would think something would be returned for, say, the term golf shoes. Wolfram says it’s not sure what to do with this input. How about a history of the golf shoe, or at least a definition? Maybe a photograph? I tried unsuccessfully to find other things I’m looking for currently, including boat anchor, bok choy seeds, fishing tackle, Flying V guitar, vegetarian hotdogs, women’s shoes, and ZZ Top items. Every one of them returned the same result as golf shoes.
  2. Inaccurate Search Results. Wolfram is supposed to be data-driven and give scientific answers to technical questions. But, when I searched “pentatonic scale,” a very common musical form (some call it the blues scale), Wolfram got it all wrong. It returned “Raga Megharanjani scale.” Wow, that really does sound cool, but it is hardly related to my search term, pentatonic scale. In this case, Wolfram is way off on its bread-and-butter of a technical query.
  3. Doesn’t Understand the Term “eCommerce.” Wolfram|Alpha doesn’t know what “e-commerce” is. When I searched on the term e-commerce, it wasn’t sure what to do with it. I get the “not sure what to do with your input” routine. Worse, when I put in the related term ecommerce, the search engine assumes that the term is a financial entity and returns information on a company called Commerce Bancshares, Inc. That’s just plain embarrassing.

It’s easy to make fun of Wolfram|Alpha because it doesn’t appear to work. We should go easy on the engine though, as it is in the early stages. Someday, this may be a robust and powerful tool, but right now it is a non-entity. So, to answer the questions posed above, there is no need to reevaluate your search engine priorities because of Wolfram|Alpha. Adjustment of website optimization for Wolfram|Alpha is not required, and Google is not dead.

Jeff Muendel

Jeff Muendel

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Comment ( 1 )

  1. Just Another Geek June 2, 2009 Reply

    "Is Google dead?" LOL; well that would be like compairing a seed that just sprouted to a full grown fruit producing tree.

    I don’t see a whole lot of potential, ever, for the individual retailer to market their products.

    In the Alpha stage, this engine provides some good math results. Wikipedia provides more factual information on just about every other subject.