You might not have heard of Wolfram|Alpha yet, but you will.  The purpose of this post isn’t to get into what it is or what it does.  Instead what I wanted to do is highlight a few things that I think that team is doing well from a Product Marketing perspective.

  • They understand that positioning is everything – Is it a search engine?  No way!  Positioning is going to be the most important thing for the success of this product because nobody can successfully take on Google in search.  The team behind Wolfram|Alpha seem to understand this and they are very clear in their positioning that it is not a search engine.  It’s the first question they answer on the FAQ.  What they can do better than Google is answer certain kinds of questions.  Now, they could have easily gone down the road of Cuil and positioned themselves as something “like Google but better”, but instead they are a “computational knowledge engine”.  Now, I do have a complaint that the home page doesn’t really explain what the heck a computational knowledge engine is or does but it doesn’t matter all that much because….
  • Usage examples (and more) on the home page – New to Wolfram|Alpha?  No problem, just have a little look at the sidebar to the right and away you go!  Man, if every Web2.0 application had this, I personally would do a lot less clicking around trying to figure out what the heck I should be doing.
  • The usage examples are cool and work – You might laugh at how obvious this is but I recently was on a web2.0 travel site where I searched on “Paris” after it suggested it as an example search and found a page with almost no content on it.  One of my biggest complaints about Cuil was that I was sure that it could do SOME searches better than Google but it never gave me any clues as to which those might be.  The Wolffram|Alpha guys nail this one and have an extensive set of examples that show the product at it’s best.
  • There’s additional help for new users – Examples by topic, a visual gallery of examples, an introductory video, an intro by Stephen Wolfram, a one page summary.  If you get to the site and can’t figure it out, frankly, you just don’t want to.
  • Appeal to your early adopters – It’s an oldie but a goodie that Google has used for years but if you hide a bunch of jokes in your product that only those who go looking will find, well, folks will go looking.  The Wolfram|Alpha easter eggs were popular.

All of this preparation and positioning has paid off for Wolfram|Alpha so far.  The coverage, in general, reflects the positioning well.  Mashable’s Stan Schroeder’s article Five Things Wolfram Alpha Does Better (And Vastly Different from Google) says:

Wolfram Alpha is not a search engine.
Perhaps it will one day become one, but currently it’s exactly what its
tagline says: a computational knowledge engine. However, it looks like
Google,
it provides you with answers and therefore most users will try to use
it as a search engine, which doesn’t always yield good results. Once
you start asking it the right questions, it’ll give you better answers.

Even the negative coverage tends to get the message right (and these folks tend to be disappointed that is isn’t more of a “Google killer”).  PC World had this to say in Wolfram Alpha the New Geek Almanic

The company calls Wolfram Alpha a “computational knowledge engine,”
which is probably the best description, but only after you’ve actually
seen Wolfram Alpha in action so you know a “computational knowledge
engine” when you see one.

I believe Wolfram Alpha will be
popular with people who find certain features that the simple search
query-style user interface is well suited for. Or who understand what
you get when you enter a city name or a date or whatever else they are
interested in.

Now, all of this said, some coverage still did the Google vs. Wolfram|Alpha direct comparison.  Wired did it for laughs in their piece Wolfram|Alpha Fails the Cool Test, and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo takes on the question of whether or not Wolfram|Alpha is a search engine in his piece Like Google Only Much, Much Worse by saying:

This is the eternal problem for any wannabe Google competitor. Wolfram
Alpha doesn’t revolutionize search; at best, it adds a marginally
useful new layer on top of it. But Google can easily co-opt such
improvements—and suddenly everyone’s got a better Google.

The world seems to want an alternative to Google and any company coming into any adjacent space has got its work cut out for it to make the world see it in a different light.  Only time will tell but I have a feeling we will be hearing more from the Wolfram|Alpha folks.

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