Wolfram Alpha Analyzes Facebook

Wolfram Alpha is different than most other search engines because it is known as an answer engine — by computing answers from the inputted data, rather than providing lists of links to outside websites. Recently, the answer engine debuted a new feature that allows one to search and analyze their Facebook profile. To access this tool you will need to visit Wolfram Alpha, and type “facebook report” in the search box. You will then need to add the app to your Facebook account.

The “Facebook report” then returns an analysis of your profile — from the number of things you’ve “liked”, the top commenters on your wall, and the most frequent words you’ve used in status updates.

I was a little surprised to see how often I used certain words, like ‘now’ and ‘summer’.

This type of information is very similar to the analytics provided to users that run a Facebook page. Similarly, you can find out demographic information about your friends, such as relationship status:

In each category there is often a “more” button that breaks down the information ever further. In the basic personal information section, the “more” button revealed the weather at my birth, the moon phase, my zodiac sign and even a sky chart!

All of this information was surprising to me because I like to think I’m careful about oversharing on social networks. From this tool alone, a company could figure out my age, demographic background, job and extracurricular activities, and some key interests. You can also search the pages of your friends, but with a more limited analysis. I was still shocked at the amount of information revealed from just their Facebook profiles.

A company or any other organization looking to understand their customers will benefit from a feature like this because only a few clicks reveal a complete breakdown of a single identity. Like I mentioned previously, Facebook already provides analytic tools for Page owners, but using this tool on a Page could help the owner understand which status updates were most successful, which users utilized the page most, and a more detailed understanding of the user demographics of those who “like” the page.

Google + Operator

It’s hard to find anyone that doesn’t default to Google whenever they need to find something on the web. But it’s even harder to find anyone that takes full advantage of Google’s search modifiers. (Admit it, even we get lazy sometimes!) However, some searches absolutely require the ability to focus results, and search modifiers have traditionally been used to do just that.

Consider the following example, taken from the blog Google Operating System. By default, a search for the characters [ai],  Goggle will also match terms like “artificial intelligence”, “Amnesty International”, and “Adobe Illustrator”. Previously, you could replace your query with [+ai] to restrict search results to pages that contained an exact match to [ai]. Sadly, Google recently removed the + operator from their search engine, replacing it with quotation marks: [“ai”]. Although this will force Google to match the exact spelling of the query, it will not force the results to actually contain that exact query.

Let’s examine another example to illustrate this subtle change. Imagine I want to search for ‘pink flying pigs’ and, although I prefer flying pigs that are also pink, what I am really interested in is whether or not they can fly.  Before, I could structure my query like this: pink +”flying pigs”. This would do both an exact match on ‘flying pigs’ and restrict the results to only those hits with ‘flying pigs’. Now that the + operator is no longer available, the query would be structured like this: pink “flying pigs”. This will still do an exact match on ‘flying pigs’, but it will also return pages that don’t have ‘flying pigs’ anywhere in them at all. In other words, quotation marks have only half the functionality of the + operator and there is now no way to quarantee that a particular phrase or term will appear in the search results.

Why is this such a big deal? Long time Google users may remember that when Google first launched, every search was an “AND” search. That is, every term that was entered in the query string was required to appear in the results. About three years ago, Google began ignoring search terms altogether, building on their successful spelling suggestions engine. This effectively changed Google to an “OR” search with more results and less precision. (For more on this, read Andy Baio’s Google kills its other plus, and how to bring it back. ) Google argues that this is an improvement for the mainstream Google user who never uses any modifiers or advanced search features, and they are probably right. But for certain groups of users, like programmers, this change radically impacts the effectiveness of Google searches. Searching for technical documentation is now much less precise and tends to return many more unsatisfactory hits.

There are some alternatives, like Blekko, which allow you to structure a query like this: perl /programming. The phrase following the slash is called a “slash tag”, and ties the query to a specific group of curated sources. Another option for programming issues is StackOverflow, which is part Wiki, Blog, Forum, and Digg/Reddit. DuckDuckGo is another Google alternative, that prides itself on protecting user privacy and Microsoft has it’s offering in Bing. Like most people, I have used Google for years and have generally been very happy with it. But, given the recent changes and the number of alternatives, perhaps it is time to sample something new?

When Not to Google

You’re familiar with Google, of course – as are the faculty and students that you work with. You probably know of one or two others – Bing, perhaps. If you’ve been around for a while, you probably remember some of the earlier search engines, like Altavista and Yahoo (both of which are still around). But have you ever heard of DuckDuckGo or Blekko? Check out this interesting rundown of a few current (non-Google) search engines – how they work and what they do best – from Lifehacker.