Wolfram|Alpha, a company whose product you have never used, may turn out to be Google’s best friend.

For those who haven’t heard yet, Wolfram|Alpha is a much-hyped, badly-named computational search engine that gives real answers to queries such as “internet users in Europe.” It pulls off the techie magic by using structured data sets, rather than messy web pages, as its index. Its demo has impressed quite a few tech journalists, including the originally skeptical Danny Sullivan, one of the crown princes of search engine journalism. See the screenshot below from Read/Write/Web:

wolfram_alpha_3

To put it lightly, Google could use a little competition right now, even if it’s only from an over-hyped website closed to the public until May 18. Perhaps that’s why Google co-founder Sergey Brin seemed to talk about Wolfram in his letter to shareholders this year.

I think it will soon be possible to have a search engine that “understands” more of the queries and documents than we do today. Others claim to have accomplished this, and Google’s systems have more smarts behind the curtains than may be apparent from the outside, but the field as a whole is still shy of where I would have expected it to be.