Type "san francisco crime" into Google and Google returns over 32 million results. There are pages from SFgov.org that lead to SFPD crime maps, news results, interactive sites, wikipedia listings, blogs, crime watch information, victims pages and more. Lots more. Google does exactly what it's supposed to do: It returns these 32 million-plus pages in an order based on placement of keywords and the relevance provided by inbound links.
Still, finding an overview of the rate of crime in San Francisco can take some time as you pick through these results.
Enter the same query on Wolfram Alpha, and you don't find links to any pages. Instead, you find real usable data. At a glance, you learn that in 2007, San Francisco experienced 5570 crimes per 100,000 people and 40,870 crimes during the year. It breaks down violent crime and property crime rates. A chart shows displays a precipitous decline in crimes per 100,000 people over a 10-year history.
In other words, Wolfram Alpha doesn't point you to pages that might answer your question. Wolfram Alpha answers your question. It's not entirely fair to categorize Wolfram Alpha as a search engine, at least in the classical sense.
But Wolfram Alpha's capabilities are about to become part of a search engine, and it won't be Google.
TechCrunch and Fast Company are reporting that Microsoft has closed a deal with the Wolfram Alpha team that will lead to the presentation of its "fact calculations" in Bing's results. There's no word yet on how those results would look, since (as the screen grab of the San Francisco Crime results below demonstrates) they don't look anything like a normal search engine's results. There has also been no announcement detailing when Wolfram Alpha results will start appearing on Bing's SERPs.
But there's no denying that the move is nicely consistent with Microsoft's advertising claim that Bing is more of a "decision engine" than a search engine. Real data can certainly help you make a decision faster than a collection of links.
While Google is reportedly trying to come up with its own Wolfram Alpha-like capabilities, Steven Wolfram spent years developing his engine and Google isn't likely to be able to roll anything out soon. In the meantime, Bing will have one more feature that makes it a compelling search resource.
A lot of people have written off Bing, noting that most of those who are using it migrated from Yahoo and other second-tier search engines; Google's numbers have remained unaffected. And a lot of people who tried Bing wound up going back to Google, many admitting it was just force of habit.
But Microsoft, which is continually tweaking Bing and adding features, appears to be in this for the long haul and may be perfectly happy with incremental growth as people gradually realize they can get results Google just doesn't offer. (A number of people have already defaulted to Bing for video searches, for example, based on the far superior presentation of results.)
Bing bashers may have been too quick to dismiss Microsoft's product.