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Bing and Wolfram try to take on Google

Wolfram Alpha, a much-hyped search engine by a famous scientist, launched last May and was supposed to take on Google. Then it kind of faded.

It’s back in the spotlight after Microsoft announced yesterday it was teaming up with the computational search engine to give Google, the Web’s king of search, a harder run to keep users coming back to its site. Microsoft’s Bing search engine ranks third after Google and Yahoo, with about 9.4 percent of the search market. Google commands about 65 percent of all searches.

Wolfram Alpha, created by physicist Stephen Wolfram, gives answers to search results instead of lists of other Web sites related to search topics. So if you type in a math problem, it is supposed to answer it for you.

To begin with, Microsoft will use the Wolfram Alpha computational search algorythms for nutrition and math. Then Bing will expand the use of Wolfram, Microsoft said in its blog.

The news is a double-edged sword for Google, which has been able to pummel its way into so many new industries because of its titanic search advertising business. But that dominance has caught the attention of Washington, with regulators scrutinizing how the company’s multi-tenacled business – that includes digital books, music, video, phone, news, navigation and mobile software – could potentially elbow out competitors.

Why is search so important? Aside from selling ads against search, for Google, they capture users often the first point of entry for content on the Web. In Washington, some competitors and scholars are questioning if Google's search platform could be used to favor its other applications. Andrew Odlyzko, a professor of mathematics and digital technology at the University of Minnesota, is one of them.

He wrote a paper last January that questioned whether search has become a platform of its own and should be included in net neutrality debates.

On antitrust concerns, he said it would be difficult to tell the company were giving priority to its own applications because the company is secretive about how its search technology works.

“This is one of those cases where we don’t know yet,” Odlyzko said. “They are doing things that insert them into all information flows but the question is if they will do this in some way that will upset people and if people will begin to think they aren’t living up to their motto and are beginning to be evil.”

Google maintains that consumers are one click away from using competing services. And it says the introduction of Bing in the last year shows the market for search is getting more competitive.

In a previous post, Google responded to similar criticism by antitrust attorney Gary Reback, who argues the company is already favoring some of its applications like Google Maps.

Google says its search is based on an algorithm and doesn't favor one application over another. But it does feature some applications, including its Google maps, at the top of some search results pages.

"Our primary goal as a search engine is to give users the information that they are looking for and as accurately and as quickly as possible," said Gabriel Stricker, a spokesman for Google. "Sometimes that means that our own properties could come up first, such as in case that you cited, maps, and that happens when it gives them a quick answer that benefits users. But apart from those situations, these are organic search results that are determined algorithmically and change all the time."

Microsoft is trying to beat Google’s search with more targeted results. For instance, if you search for travel prices on Bing, it will give you actual price estimates by airlines. With the partnership with Wolfram Alpha, a query asking how many calories are in a burger will give you an answer right away: too much.

By Cecilia Kang  |  November 12, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Antitrust , DOJ , Google , Microsoft  | Tags: google, microsoft, minnesota, yahoo  
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