This is the second part of post exploring how search engines display their results now, and how that has to change if search engines are going to start offering search answers instead of search results. Social media will continue to be a major force that will get your website found. Google has launched its search plus your world feature, which promises users results that will be more personally relevant. Google and Bing have already started to include search results from across their networks of service.
Bing, Google, and the “answer engine” Wolfram Alfa all strive to provide immediate answers to a user’s search query. Bing and Google display most of their results in a familiar result page layout. They both give the user ten links to websites that the search engine feels are relevant to the query. Wolfram Alpha, which is fundamentally different because it searches a human curated database instead of the entire internet, organizes everything it knows about a search and then gives the user relevant chunks of information.
By design, Wolfram can only answer questions that have factual answers. Do not ask it to find the best lemon bar in Boston or for the identity of the monster that lives behind Winkie’s—Wolfram Alpha deals only in the objective and knowable. To help new users, the site offers some “Important things to know”
Important things to know about Wolfram|Alpha:
- Wolfram|Alpha answers specific questions
rather than explaining general topics
Enter “2 cups of sugar”, not “nutrition information”
- You can only get answers about objective facts
Try “highest mountain”, not “most beautiful painting”
- Only what is known is known to Wolfram|Alpha
Ask “how many men in Mauritania”, not “how many monsters in Loch Ness”
- Only public information is available
Request “GDP of France”, not “home phone of Michael Jordan”
Considering these points, I tried to build searches that Wolfram Alpha would be able to answer to see how their result page compared with the results of Google and Bing.
#1—“What is the weather in Boston?”
This is a search that any search, no matter if it is focused on results or answers, should be able to answer, and all three engines provided useful and easy to understand information.
Wolfram Alpha listed the forecast at the top, followed by the most recently measured conditions.
Google displayed a box of information that included current conditions, a forecast, and links to more weather websites. It then lists the standard ten blue links.
Bing offered a result page similar to Wolfram Alpha’s. It was organized without any list of links, and contained forecasts, current conditions, and weather maps. The similarity to Wolfram Alpha should be expected; Wolfram Alpha powers some of Bing’s results.
This search plays directly to Wolfram Alpha’s strenghts—knowable information with only one correct answer. With searches, and results, like this, a redsigned SERP provides a more useful result than the traditional ten link model. Both Bing and Wolfram Alpha provide lots of information with no extraneous links. Google’s SERP puts most of that information at least one more click away from the user compared to the results the other two engines offer.
#2—“Tufts Abyssal Plain”
As every amatuer oceanographer knows, an abyssal plain an expansive, featureless swath of seafloor at least 4,000 meters bellow the sealevel. I figured that the location of the Tufts Abyssal Plain would be a piece of information Wolfram Alpha would easily be able to give to me.
It wasn’t. Wolfram Alpha only pulled “tufts” from my search and gave me lots of data about Tufts, including a table that illustrated how many pepole earned a degree in a certain field, and what degree they earened. But all this information on Tufts had nothing to do with sea floors, so I didn’t get an instant answer. Interestingly, Wolfram Alpha recognized the word abyssal and assumed it was refering to the ocean zone.
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