Everyone is all a-buzz about Google buying YouTube and what that means for television, but I am currently more interested in accessing Google with my telephone--an old fashioned land-line at that! Call
1 877 466 4411 (1 877 GOOG 411)
And try your luck with two voices that I've come to think of as Mr. Google Smooth and Mr. Google Hawking. They won't tell you who they are, but they seem to be the voices of Google Local Search.
It's worth calling just to hear Google Hawking try to pronounce "cuisine."
If you call, nothing announces that you've reached Google, but a slightly arch and apparently human Mr. Smooth informs you your call might be recorded and then asks for a city and state. Mr. Hawking then cuts in, slow, methodical, and synthetic, to repeat your query. All good? Mr. Smooth then asks for a business type or name. He does all the traffic direction--the prompting for commands, the suggestions of ways you can interact, the questions. Mr. Hawking just gets to read back your queries and read out the searches.
Actual search results described below the fold, but just some general remarks: the voice recognition is pretty good, even with some "foreign" words, but not all English words. (I don't know, is "Hobbit" English?) It puts a little too much emphasis on the business name or type part of the query and doesn't use the geography part as enough of a filter--it's pretty annoying when you're looking for something in Oakland to get a result in San Francisco. Google Hawking's repetition of the query back before listing results can fool you into thinking it's understood when it hasn't. And Hawking mispronounces some normal English words quite comically. Sometimes Hawking's mispronounced query results are so muddled it sounds like the connection is breaking up, which will probably be very frustrating to mobile users.
The spelling with one's number keypad using triple-tap is awkward, since there's no obvious way to erase only a few mistaken letters without starting again. Voice commands include "details" (basically, the phone number), "more results," (beyond the first three, which get repeated twice before Smooth&Hawking offer up the next five results themselves), a number, which gets Hawking to repeat that query, "go back" which takes you back without making you repeat the city and state, and "start over" which has you start from scratch. "Repeat," however, doesn't seem to catch that well. Hitting #1 during the search process will get you the spell-by-dialing-in-triple-tap option.
All in all this could definitely be useful in a pinch, especially while driving with one's mobile or otherwise without good internet access. In the Bay Area, where you need multiple yellow pages to cover your daily wanderings, it could really catch on. And of course it's free, which is a lot better than the mobile 411 fees I've gotten punched with in the past.
If it will amuse to find out how I got some of these conclusions, and a little bit of background, click on, dear reader.
Mr. Hawking got me my local Banana Republic easily, and connected the call, at which point I stupidly asked, "how long are you open?". When I said "Pirate Shop," Mr.Hawking first thought I said "Irish shop," and tried to give me the number to a Celtic gift store. When I said "go back" and repeated, Mr. Hawking understood. (I'll leave trying to talk to Hawking in pirate to souls more willing to be cruel to AI.) The first result was Valencia Pizza and Pasta, the second City Art on Valencia, but the third was, in fact, San Francisco's finest pirate shop "eight. two. six. Valencia. on. eight. two. six. Valencia." (I would normally say eight twenty six.)
On to Oakland! Disasters were on my mind, so I found out that Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disaster tongue tied Mr. Hawking completely. I relented and tried "CARD Alameda" and got Alameda County charge card services and a stationary store. I tried "Disaster Preparation," and got the San Mateo Office of Emergency Services, the California Office of Emergency Services (though I couldn't understand that through Google Hawking's accent), and the World Institute on Disability. Annoyingly, Google Smooth usually interrupts the reading of result #2 to remind me that I can press 9 at any time to have a listing sent to me as a text message.
I looked at the clock and remembered I wanted to call my Aikido Dojo and ask a question. I tried, "Martial Arts studio" (still ostensibly in Oakland!) and Google Hawking gave me results for various studios in Concord, Clayton, San Bruno, and San Francisco--nothing in Oakland! So then I tried saying Aikido Institute of Oakland. Diva Institute? Diko Institute? And then, magically, Google Hawking returned with a perfectly pronounced, "Aikido Institute of Oakland," and it was the first listing. At this point it was about 10 minutes later than I would have wanted to call, but I let the call connect, and asked my question. (Thanks Daphne & Diana!)
So then I was curious about other "foreign" words, and wanted to move on to Berkeley. "Indian Restaurant," got me first one listing for Viceroy and two for Khana Peena. Google Hawking can say Viceroy and even Khana Peena, but apparently he thinks "cuisine" is pronounced "Kai Seen" which made it sound like some exotic South East Asian locale. I tried "Udupi Palace Restaurant" and he just couldn't even parse that. Then I tried "South Indian restaurant" and got "Puzn Kai Seen" (Pasand), "Bombay Kai Seen" and some place in Santa Clara. Again, Berkeley should have been the relevant filter, and wasn't. I tried, "Vik's Chaat Corner," and was surprised when Hawking replied with a perfectly pronounced, "Vik's Chaat Corner," but was disappointed when I got these results. If you're looking for Chaat, you probably won't be pacified with Barbeque. "Thai Restaurant" returned good results, the top one being "Chum" restaurant (that is Cha-am, not pirate food). They were also completely baffled by "The Other Change of Hobbit," one of Berkeley's science fiction and fantasy book stores.
On to El Cerrito! Google Hawking seems to know how to spell a correctly prounounced "El Serrito" but he can't say it. When repeating it back to confirm that's the city I want to search in, Google Hawking says "El Cherrito," and when saying it while returning queries he says, "El Cherno." "Comic book shop" got me "Stand up Comics" in one fell swoop, but "Bead Biz" was impossible. Finally Mr. Smooth suggested I key it in, but first it was very hard to triple tap fast enough, and secondly it didn't get any search results anyway. Then I said "Bead shop", and basically got these results. And that's when I'd decided I'd hung out with Smooth&Hawking enough. Now it's your turn!
Though I haven't heard of calling Google Local before, it isn't that surprising. As we noted back in March, pay-per-call is a growing business in advertising. Since many businesses still rely more on phone sales than internet sales, they're willing to pay a premium for ads that directly result in calls, and in February Google started rolling it out very slowly. I haven't seen the little green phone icons (which give you the option of keying in your phone number such that Google can then patches a call first to your line and then to the advertisers) in a while. It was even the subject of a post by a hacker who apparently broke into the official Google Blog this weekend. But this phone-only search is a different beast. Back in April Ars Technica's Ken Fisher noted the filing of a patent for voice interaction with the search engine. Since merchants don't have to pay to get listed on Google Local, I'm not sure how these phone calls will translate into ad revenue. It would hurt Google's credibility if it let ads bubble up to be the first results unnaturally, but in timed voice trasnmissions there's no little line to mark off "Ads." The emergency geek in me approves because when your power goes out, and your internet service isn't working, your landline phone often does keep working, and it could be pretty powerful to be able to find local things faster through google. Until it moves beyond Local, though, I'm not sure how much more useful this will be beyond the printed yellow pages. In the mean time, you can hear Speegle (McHawking ?) read simple Google search results with a slightly Scottish accent.* Or you can go listen to some MC Hawking.