Tag Archives: Wolfram Alpha

Essential Non-Google Search Tools for Researchers – Top Tips

This is the list of Top Tips that delegates attending the UKeiG workshop on 7th September 2016 in London came up with at the end of the training day.  Some of the usual suspects such as the ‘site:’ command, Carrot Search and Offstats are present but it is good to see Yandex included in the list for the first time.

  1. Carrotsearch http://search.carrotsearch.com/carrot2-webapp/search or http://carrotsearch.com/ and click on the “Live Demo” link on the left hand side of the page.
    This was recommended for its clustering of results and also the visualisations of terms and concepts via the circles and “foam tree”. The Web Search uses eTools.ch for the general searches and there is also a PubMed option.

    Carrot Search Foam PubMed Foam Tree
    Carrot Search Foam PubMed Foam Tree
  1. Advanced Twitter Search http://twitter.com/search-advanced
    The best way to search Twitter! Use the Advanced Search http://twitter.com/search-advanced or the click on the “More Options” on the results page. There is a detailed description of the commands and how they can be used at https://blog.bufferapp.com/twitter-advanced-search 
  1. Yandex http://www.yandex.com/
    The international version of the Russian search engine with a collection of advanced commands – including a proximity operator – that makes it a worthy competitor to Google. Run your search and on the results page click on the two line next to search box.

    Yandex Advanced Search
    Yandex Advanced Search

    Alternatively, use the search operators. Most of them are listed at https://yandex.com/support/search/how-to-search/search-operators.xml. There is also a /n operator that enables you to specify that words/phrases must appear within a certain distance of each other, for example:

    "University of Birmingham" nanotechnology /2 2020

    There are country versions of Yandex for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Turkey. You will, though, need to know the languages to get the best out of them and apart from Turkey they use a different alphabet.

  1. Millionshort http://millionshort.com/
    If you are fed up with seeing the same results from Google again and again give MillionShort a try. MillionShort enables you to remove the most popular web sites from the results. The page that best answers your question might not be well optimised for search engines or might cover a topic that is so specialised that it never makes it into the top results in Google or Bing.Originally, as its name suggests, it removed the top 1 million but you can change the number that you want omitted. There are filters to the left of the results enabling you to remove or restrict your results to ecommerce sites, sites with or without advertising, live chat sites and location. The sites that have been excluded are listed to the right of the results.
  1. site: command
    Use the site: command to focus your search on particular types of site, for example include site:ac.uk in your search for UK academic websites. Or use it to search inside large rambling sites with useless navigation, for example site:www.gov.uk. You can also use -site: to exclude individual sites or a type of site from your search. All of the major web search engines support the command.
  1. Microsoft Academic Search http://academic.research.microsoft.com/
    An alternative to Google Scholar.“Semantic search provides you with highly relevant search results from continually refreshed and extensive academic content from over 80 million publications.”This was recently revamped and although it now loads and searches faster than it used to the new version has lost the citation and co-author maps that were so useful. It can be a useful way of identifying researchers, publications and citations but do not rely on the information too much. It can get things very wrong indeed. For example, I’ve found that for some reason the affiliation of several authors from the Slovak Technical University in Bratislava is given as the Technical University of Kenya!
  1. Wolfram Alpha https://www.wolframalpha.com/
    This is very different from the typical search engine in that it uses its own curated data. Whether or not you get an answer from it depends on the type of question and how you ask the question. The information is pulled from its own databases and for many results it is almost impossible to identify the original source, although it does provide a possible list of resources. If you want to see what WolframAlpha can do try out the examples and categories that are listed on its home page.
  1. OFFSTATS – The University of Auckland Library http://www.offstats.auckland.ac.nz/
    This is a great starting point for locating official statistical sources by country, region or subject. All of the content in the database is assessed by humans for quality and authority, and is freely available.
  1. Meltwater IceRocket http://www.icerocket.com/
    IceRocket specialises in real-time search and was recommended for inclusion in the Top Tips for its blog search and advanced search options. There is also a Trends tool that shows you the frequency with which terms are mentioned in blogs over time and which enables you to compare several terms on the same graph.

    IceRocket Trends
    IceRocket Trends

    Very useful for comparing, for example, mentions of products, companies, people in blogs.

  1. Behind the Headlines NHS Choices http://www.nhs.uk/news/Pages/NewsIndex.aspx
    Behind the headlines provides an unbiased and evidence-based analysis of health stories that make the news. It is a good source of information for confirming or debunking the health/medical claims made by general news reporting services, including the BBC. For each “headline” it summarises in plain English the story, where it came from and who did the research, what kind of research it was, results, researcher’s interpretation, conclusions and whether the headline’s claims are justified.

Searching for the height of Ben Nevis – how hard can it be?

If you have attended one of my recent search workshops, or glanced through the slides, you will have noticed that I have a new test query: the height of Ben Nevis. It didn’t start out as a test search but as a genuine query from me.  A straightforward search, I thought, even for Google.

I typed in the query ‘height of ben nevis’ and across the top of the screen Google emblazoned the answer: 1345 metres.  That sort of rang a bell and sounded about right, but as with many of Google’s Quick Answers there was no source and I do like to double or even triple check anything that Google comes up with.


To the right of the screen was a Google Knowledge Graph with an extract from Wikipedia telling me that Ben Nevis stands at not 1345 but 1346 metres above sea level. Additional information below that says the mountain has an elevation of 1345 metres and a prominence of 1344 metres (no sources given). I know have three different heights – and what is ‘prominence’?


After a little more research I discovered that prominence is not the same as elevation, but I shall leave  you to investigate that for yourselves if you are interested. The main issue for me was that Google was giving me at least three slightly different answers for the height of Ben Nevis, so it was time to read some of the results in full.

Before I got around to clicking on the first of the two articles at the top of the results, alarm bells started ringing.  One of the metres to feet conversions in the snippets did not look right.

Height of Ben Nevis search results 3

So I ran my own conversions for both sets of metres to feet and in the other direction (feet to metres):

1344m = 4409.499ft, rounded down to 4409ft

4406ft = 1342.949m, rounded up to 1343m

1346m = 4416.01ft, rounded down to 4416ft

4414ft = 1345.387m, rounded down to 1345m

As if finding three different heights was not bad enough, it seems that the contributors to the top two articles are incapable of carry out simple ft/m conversions, but I suspect that  a rounding up and rounding down of the figures before the calculations were carried out is the cause of the discrepancies.

The above results came from a search on Google.co.uk. Google.com gave me similar results but with a Quick Answer in feet, not metres.


We still do not have a reliable answer regarding the height of Ben Nevis.

Three articles below the top two results were from BBC News, The Guardian and Ordnance Survey – the most relevant and authoritative for this query –  and were about the height of Ben Nevis having been remeasured earlier this year using GPS. The height on the existing Ordnance Survey maps had been given as 1344m but the more accurate GPS measurements came out at 1344.527m or 4411ft 2in. The original Ordnance Survey article explains that this is only a few centimetres different from the earlier 1949 assessment but it means that the final number has had to be rounded up rather than down. The official height on OS maps has therefore been increased from 1344m to 1345m.  So Google’s Quick Answer at the top of the results page was indeed correct.

Why make a fuss about what are, after all, relatively small variations in the figures? Because there is one official height for the mountain and one of the three figures that Google was giving me (1346m) was neither the current nor the previous height. Looking at the commentary behind the Wikipedia article, which gave 1346m, it seems that the contributors were trying to reconcile the height in metres with the height in feet but carrying out the conversion using rounded up or rounded down figures. As one of my science teachers taught me long ago, you should always carry forward to the next stage of your calculations as many figures after the decimal point as possible. Only when you get to the end do you round up or down, if it is appropriate to do so. And imagine if your Pub Quiz team lost the local championship because you had correctly answered 1345m  to this question but the MC  had 1346m down as the correct figure? There’d be a riot if not all out war!

That’s what Google gave us. How did Bing fare?

The US and UK versions of Bing gave results that looked very similar to Google’s but  with two different quick answers in feet, and neither gave sources:

Bing UK


Bing US


I won’t bore you with all of the other search tools that I tried except for Wolfram Alpha. This gave me 1343 meters or 4406 ft. At least the conversion is correct but there is no direct information on where the data has been taken from.


The sources link was of no help whatsoever and referred me to the home pages of the sites and not the Ben Nevis specific data. On some of the sites, when I did find the Ben Nevis pages, the figures were different from those shown by Wolfram Alpha so I have no idea how Wolfram arrived at 1343 meters.

So, the answer to my question “How high is Ben Nevis?” is 1344.527m rounded up on OS maps to 1345m.

And the main lessons from this exercise are:

  1. Never trust the quick answers or knowledge graphs from any of the search engines, especially if no source is given. But you knew that anyway, didn’t you?
  2. If you are seeing even small variations in the figures, and there are calculations or conversions involved, double check them yourself.
  3. Don’t skim read the results and use information highlighted in the snippets – read the full articles and from more than one source.
  4. Make sure that the articles you use are not just copying what others have said.
  5. Try and find the most relevant and authoritative source for your query, and ideally a primary source. In this case it was Ordnance Survey. GB officially taller – Ben Nevis  https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/about/news/2016/gb-officially-taller-ben-nevis.html

Bing integrates Wolfram Alpha and out of beta in UK – allegedly

Hitting my RSS feeds this morning was the announcement from Bing that their UK version is out of beta. “So what,”  I thought. “Doesn’t look any different to me this morning”. But looking at the announcement in full I see that there is a plethora of new services that I can now enjoy. To start with:

“When you search for Football, what kind of answers do you expect to find. Well, I guess it depends on where you are doing the asking, if you are in the UK you probably don’t want to see NFL schedules. You probably mean what we in the US call soccer. Well today, millions of searchers in the UK can rest assured that Bing knows what they are talking about. We are excited to announce today that Bing in the UK is shedding its beta tag.  We want to congratulate our pals over in the UK on a huge milestone. You can now use Bing to make faster more informed choices on a daily basis.  Oh, and the next Manchester United game is on the 21st of November at 17:30 GMT (that’s 5:30 p.m. for us Yanks), in case you were wondering.”

My first reaction was that I wanted to be sick: I found this so patronising. We in the UK should be so grateful that Bing has finally realised that we have a life separate from the US and that Bing has taken the trouble to find out what we mean by football. Sorry, but I am not at all interested in football so if this is all you are offering as UK customisation then I nominate you for the #epicfail awards.

But let’s not be hasty. Let’s look at what else they have to offer.

“The daily Bing Homepage image and hotspots are something that now will be localized in the UK, with unique imagery and hotspots.”

At last!  The photos on the home page are of landmarks and locations in the UK and not of the Galapagos islands or Mongolia. This morning we had the Angel of the North and then the Avebury stones. The ‘hotspots’ option is now working and if you are interested you can find out more about the subject of the photo.

Bing UK

“Visual Search using visual images and metadata to make search more visual and more compelling.”

Pathetic! For a start there is no visual search on the home page. You have to click on the More option, which takes you to a page where it is listed. They seem to have deleted US stuff and and given us UK politicians under famous people, and Premier League Football Players and Professional UK football clubs under Sports. That is it. Where are the rugby clubs and cricket?  Oh, and under ‘More’ we have ‘Yoga poses’. Now I wonder why that is there? Could it be anything to do with the fact that there are only pictures of photogenic girlies in interesting poses that might possibly attract a lot of visitors to the site? Surely not. How about some gorgeous male hunks in interesting poses?!

“More Instant Answers. Get quick response answers and results to searches, such as how is Liverpool doing in the Premiership or which tourist attraction should I take my in-laws to at the weekend?”

Yet more football, but I thought I would try out their own search “How is Liverpool doing in the Premiership”. Bing did not come up with any easy to find information on this (I was assuming that the searcher would want to know where Liverpool is in the League Table). Google, however, had the official site of the premier league at the top of the results, which has a link to the current league table positions of all of the clubs.

Bing results


Google results


“See who or what is being chatted about real-time with a global live Twitter feed with Bing Twitter search.”

#epicfail yet again I’m afraid. You have to know the URL of the Bing Twitter search because it is not listed on the UK home page or under ‘More’. Do not be too disappointed because it is a waste of server space, processing time and your time: see my blog posting Twitter search in Bing and Google

“Looking for the best deals?  – There is now an integrated shopping experience with Ciao UK. With Bing you can search the Internet to find the best prices, reviews and local availability.”

Bing didn’t do too badly on this one. We need a new frying pan and it came up with sensible results apart from the Keith Floyd biography “Out of the Frying Pan”. The best link, though, was one of the adverts for John Lewis.


“With insights from our Multimap users, Bing Maps now offers new map styles, imagery and transit integration as well as draggable routes.”

In general the maps are fine. The Bird’s Eye imagery, which is equivalent to Google’s Satellite view, is higher resolution than Google’s and sometime more up to date. The ‘find a business option’ is as incomplete as Google’s. If you want to locate pubs, restaurants, plumbers etc in an area then go direct to Yellow Pages or Thomson Local. The directions for walking from my house to Reading railway station were sensible but it failed when I asked for Manchester Piccadilly railway station to Manchester Business School  (Google Maps had no problems). In fact, Bing Maps could not find Manchester Business School in any shape or form. As for “draggable routes” – no sign of them here.

“Bing has been built for the UK to help consumers get to key local sites and services in fewer links by including popular links, search boxes and suggestions within best match.”

If you are interested in football and shopping, then that might be true. It is certainly better than the US-centric stuff but overall still nowhere near as relevant as Google’s results.

Let’s move on to the announcement that Bing now incorporates results from Wolframalpha ( How Many Calories in a Burger? What’s 2^2^2^2^2? Bing and Wolfram|Alpha Have the Answers). This won’t take very long because I could not get it to work. I even tried the examples they give with the UK and the US versions of Bing and Wolfram Alpha is nowhere to be seen in the results. Has anyone managed to get this to work as described or has the integration not actually happened yet?

Having spent most of the morning struggling with Bing’s new features, and in some cases failing to find them at all, I was beginning to wonder if I had dreamt the dozens of announcements that littered my RSS feeds. I double checked and they are definitely there. Perhaps it’s a tech issue? I’m running Windows 7 on my main machine but the results are the same on Windows XP, and it makes no difference whether I run Firefox or IE. So I can only draw the conclusion that yet again Microsoft Bing has made a complete [expletives deleted] mess of everything. We could do with another half decent alternative to Google but Bing is just not in the same league.

    Presentation: Internet Search – a challenging and ever changing landscape

    CILIP in the Thames Valley, 6th October 2009, Great Expectations, Reading

    The presentation I gave to CILIP in the Thames Valley on 6th October is now available in a number of locations. At least one of these should be accessible through your firewall!

    PowerPoint presentation – RBA web site


    Some of the slides have annotations from my blog and new comments so make sure you check out the notes to the slides. Many of the slides are screen shots so they won’t make much sense without the notes or unless you were at the live presentation.

    Wolfram Alpha is out – hmmm…

    After months of pre-launch hype Wolfram Alpha is now up and running for us all to try out. It has been labelled by some as a  potential Google killer but it has always called itself a “computational knowledge engine” or fact search engine:

    “Wolfram Alpha is backed by Stephen Wolfram, the noted scientist and author behind the Mathematica computational software and the book, A New Kind Of Science. The service bills itself as a “computational knowledge engine,” which is a mouthful. I’d call it a “fact search engine” or perhaps an “answer search engine,” a term that’s been used in the past for services designed to provide you with direct answers, rather than point you at pages that in turn may hold those answers.”

    From Impressive: The Wolfram Alpha “Fact Engine” http://searchengineland.com/wolfram-alpha-fact-engine-18431

    If you are interested in the background and aims of WolframAlpha the article in Searchengineland.com goes into more detail.

    I am not going to go into any more background here, enlightening and informative though it is, because the average punter will not bother and will simply type in a query. This is where the trouble starts. You have to understand that WolframAlpha deals with data and statistics, but only certain types of data. If you are looking for market share data, forget it. My test search on gin vodka sales UK came up with what was to be the all too common:

    “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input.”

    Half a dozen searches later it found an answer for one of my test queries – world oil production. The answer was correct but horrendously out of date: an estimate for 2004. The same search in Google came up with figures for 2008 and estimates for 2009.

    It managed to the find the population of the UK but when I asked it for the population of Caversham it decided that I really meant Faversham. Google wins again on this one.

    This morning’s tweets #wolframalpha suggested that it is very good at comparing country data. It provided some very basic data when I looked at UK and France but adding a third (Germany) caused it to totally lose the plot. Some data was labelled with the country but for the rest I was left guessing.

    As WolframAlpha has a scientific bias I tried it on Planck’s constant, which it got right (but then so does Google in big bold letters at the top of the results list). Spinach vitamin C was another winner, but trying to compare it with mango and broccoli was more of a challenge. If you type in spinach mango broccoli Vitamin C, WolframAlpha only looks for vitamin C in broccoli. You have to type in ‘spinach and mango and broccoli vitamin C’. It came up with a table for vitamin C levels for all three but there is only one nutritional facts table and it is not labelled.

    I then decided to see if could come up with information on the origin of petroleum. Another fail as it tried to look for the origin of  the word petroleum.


    How about zeolites then? No it asked me if I meant websites.


    Next stop companies, which WolframAlpha suggests it can handle. It provided limited share price data on Royal Dutch Shell and even managed to compare it with BP and Tullow Oil. The information is rather spartan and you would be far better off going to Yahoo Finance or Google Finance for information on listed companies. WolframAlpha failed totally when I added in Heritage Oil. Was a fourth company too much? I did a separate search on Heritage Oil and it simply did not recognise the company.


    Now, come on – Heritage Oil is on the London Stock exchange, which is where I thought WoframAlpha was getting its data (or so the labelling implied) but that may not be the case. When you look at the Source Information it says

    “This list is intended as a guide to sources of further information. The inclusion of an item on this list does not necessarily mean that its content was used as the basis for any specific WolframAlpha result.

    For me, this is a major issue. I need to know where the information has come from and a list of  possible sources is not good enough.

    It is still very early days for WolframAlpha, so it may eventually live up to expectations. It has long way to go and there are major problems to address:

    1. The types of query that it can handle are limited and this needs to be made more obvious to the average searcher

    2. The way you phrase your search is important. For some of my test searches I had to try four or five variations before it came up with any results. The average searcher will give up after the first attempt and go back to Google.

    3. Some of the information is seriously out of date.

    4. Sources are not directly linked to the data. It is essential that one knows where the information has come from.

    I shall go back on a regular basis to see how it is progressing but for the present I am sticking with my existing favourite  sources for serious research.