What a week for search technology.
On May 15, computer scientist Stephen Wolfram and his team released Wolfram|Alpha, a search tool that has been compared to Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , but which appears to be much more like the intelligent index that IBM (NYSE: IBM ) calls "Watson."
Google piled on this past week, announcing several enhancements to its search engine. One yet-to-be-released feature, called Google Squared, creates a spreadsheet from results, allowing users to find and manipulate data much more easily than before. I've yet to try it, but published descriptions suggest that it's aimed directly at indexes like Watson and Wolfram|Alpha, which hope to reduce the burden on users by favoring answers over mere results.
Finally, this morning, The Wall Street Journal broke the news that Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) will next week make public the next-generation version of its Live Search engine, code-named "Kumo." Once again, search is suddenly the Next Big Thing.
Wrestling with Kumo
Expect most observers to focus on Microsoft over the next few weeks. Mr. Softy has the most to lose if Kumo proves to be an unimpressive performer. Here are two features I'll be watching for when CEO Steve Ballmer unveils the technology at the Journal's D: All Things Digital conference.
The no-brainer. A leaked internal Microsoft memo published by the Journal talks about how 40% of search queries go unanswered, and 46% of search sessions take longer than 20 minutes.
Unfortunately, there's no good way to verify that data. And yet it's true that whether you use Google, Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) , or IAC's (Nasdaq: IACI ) Ask.com, results aren't the same as answers. Right now, users are the last mile when it comes to filtering search results. Kumo could win big by using technology to close the gap.
2. Real-time results
For all the hype surrounding Twitter -- and there's plenty, even here at Fool.com -- we know that Google envies the microblogger. "People really want to do stuff real time and I think they [Twitter] have done a great job about it. I think we have done a relatively poor job of creating things that work on a per-second basis," UK newspaper The Guardian quoted co-founder Larry Page as saying yesterday.
Microsoft won't have a good excuse if Kumo fails to deliver at least some real-time results. Facebook, its principal partner in social networking and a user of the Live.com search engine, is already supplying some real-time data to users' home news feeds.
Two features, one opportunity. With them, Kumo could be a killer. Without, it'd just be more filler in a search market already littered with laggards.
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