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A great week for Google challengers

If you don't know DuckDuckGo and Wolfram Alpha, you should. And both of these outstanding Google alternatives received boosts this week that could raise their visibility.

For companies that would take on Google's near-monopoly in the search business, being big is a challenge. There is, in fact, only one truly big Google rival left: Microsoft's Bing. And while it's a worthy opponent in terms of features and raw ingenuity, it's still a hugely pricey, money-losing venture.

Being a smaller, more specialized Google competitor, however, can work. And good things happened for two of my favorites this week.

DuckDuckGo's homepage. DuckDuckGo

Favorite #1 is DuckDuckGo. Despite the wacky name, it's a traditional search engine. In fact, part of its appeal is that it feels very traditional--so much so that it's reminiscent of what Google felt like years ago, before it started cramming more types of results into search results and formatting them in a fancier manner. The results that DuckDuckGo returns are relevant and low on spam and other unwanted links, too.

As a business, DuckDuckGo is pretty much the anti-Bing. In fact, it's been operated by one full-time employee--founder Gabriel Weinberg--and a squadron of passionate volunteers. But now the site has started to grow. In fact, its staff doubled late last month, when Weinberg hired employee #1. And this week, he announced that DDG has done something perfectly normal for a tech startup: It's accepted outside financing from venture-capital firm Union Square Ventures and some other investors.

Here's hoping that the infusion of cash helps the site to get bigger and better-known--but that it never loses the minimalist, straightforward personality that made it appealing in the first place.

Favorite #2 is Wolfram Alpha. Launched by computing-science legend Stephen Wolfram in 2009, it's not really a search engine. Instead, it's an alternative way to learn facts--stuff like math, science, and history. Wolfram Alpha knows a lot about these topics, and it's exceptionally good at understanding questions posed to it by human beings. Ones like "What was Apple's stock price on October 14th, 2001?" And "Where was William Howard Taft born?" And "What is $175.23 in Japanese yen?"

Wolfram Alpha isn't exactly obscure, but it also isn't the household name it deserves to be. So one of the things that excites me most about Apple's iPhone 4S, which goes on sale today, is that its Siri voice assistant has Wolfram Alpha baked in. Ask Siri questions, and she'll hand some of them off to Wolfram Alpha to get answers. It should help make Siri useful, and it also sounds like powerful advertising for Alpha.

Neither DuckDuckGo nor Alpha is going to topple Google anytime soon--which is fine, since Google got so successful by being so good, and it remains wonderful. Still, I'd love to see both services become so well-known that I can stop introducing them to people who have never heard of them--and with any luck, this week's news will help.