My friend Bob Kerns blogged about Stephen Wolfram’s “Alpha” project. The project aims to take on Google by creating a web-retrieval engine that can answer specific factual questions directly. Type in, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and it will go out to the Web, retrieve the answer, and tell you. Bob doesn’t think Alpha will be able to challenge Google. I agree.

I’d never heard of Wolfram’s “alpha” before, but the sensationalistic headlines, in my humble opinion, show a total misunderstading of Google’s business model.

Google is in the advertising business, not the search business. Search is one of many distribution channels they have for that advertising. It lets them offer targeted ads, because what people search for can be used to target ads to people who might want to buy a product or service.

They’ve also figured out that if they give away products that involve high information content (mail, word processors, spreadsheets, etc.), targeted ads can be delivered unobtrusively in the margins, deduced from the information a person is working with.

It makes sense for Google to develop better programs in the information-processing space than Microsoft and give them away for free, since that drives eyeballs to Google’s ads. You’ll notice Google isn’t building the G-Box 360; there’s no information content there to be analyzed and monetized.

The Google phone gets you more deeply involved with your Google platform on mobile devices. My guess is that it’s a just-in-case move, anticipating the possibility that mobile devices will develop into a big chunk of the information processing market (and thus advertising eyeballs).

Alpha may be able to answer factual questions directly, but it’s not necessarily even in the same space as Google. Factual questions aren’t likely to be very good at generating enough context to do good ad targeting. If I ask, “what is the tensile strength of steel,” you don’t have much information to use to target ads. You don’t know why I want that information.

When I Google, however, I am typing in words associated with the actual information I need. I type in broader phrases, loaded with context. If I’m searching for “steel for skyscraper construction,” it’s easier for Google to find a host of relevant ads based on the query words and on the content of the top pages matching the query.

It’s the very fuzziness of Google’s search that makes it a good business for monetizing with ads.

Stephen Wolfram’s “Alpha” isn…

read time: 2 min