Get the Right Results, Not Just Results

When I worked a reference desk, I sometimes fielded questions from lawyers (or attorneys as we called them) needing to identify information about a particular stock.  They were handling an estate and needed to know its value on a given day.  This historic research is pretty easy using Yahoo! Finance or Marketwatch, both of which I discuss in the text.

But I wanted an easier solution.  I was intrigued by a post on Lifehacker that talked about using Wolframalpha‘s search engine to determine how many calories you burn taking a certain number of steps.  I wondered if I could use Wolframalpha to always return the pieces of information I would need if I wanted a stock value on a given day.  Here is the search I put together, after a a bit of trial and error:

stock_symbol month day, year opening closing high low

Here’s what it looks like:

GOOG December 14, 2006 opening closing high low

Spelling out the dates ensures that you get M/D/Y instead of D/M/Y.

The problem I found, though,was that the Wolframalpha results looked good (try it and see by clicking the link above), they were partly wrong.  A bit like having a wolframalpha in sheep’s clothing – or a beer in squirrel’s clothing.  Not what you’d expect.

This would have been a great shortcut but after comparing some other stock symbols and dates, I found that the opening was usually correct, the closing was sometimes wrong, and the highs and lows were always wrong (and often the same).  So I will be heading back to my old standbys for this sort of research, thinking of ways to use WolframAlpha in the future, and reminding myself that using a site focused on the stock market for historic stock information is probably easier than testing a data search tool.

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