By Eric Auchard
Computer Web search leader Google Inc. on Friday stepped up an
experiment to use speech recognition on telephones so consumers can
ask for local information, in a challenge to directory assistance
The company is inviting U.S. callers to dial 1-800-GOOG-411
(1-800-466-4411) from any phone to test a voice-activated service
free-of-charge that it calls Google Voice Local Search, which is
available on its experimental Google Labs site.
"Using this service, you get fast access to the same local information
you'd find on Google Maps," an explanation of the new experiment said
on the Google Labs site. "You don't need a computer, you don't need an
Internet connection, and you don't even need to use your cellphone
keypad," it said.
Details are available at http://labs.google.com/goog411/ .
Google's experiment comes weeks after Microsoft Corp. agreed to
acquire voice search firm Tellme Networks, in a deal sources said is
valued at more than $800 million. The transaction is Microsoft's
largest acquisition in five years.
Improving quality and falling costs of voice search technology are
enticing Internet players Google, Microsoft, and rival Yahoo Inc. to
expand beyond pay-per-click Web search advertising business into
Kelsey Group analysts estimate the U.S. directory assistance market
generates $9.4 billion a year. Worldwide, the market rings up $13
billion, according to data published by Opus Research.
Google has staged on-and-off again tests stretching back to 2002 of
ways to allow phone users to use their voices to ask for information,
rather than telephone keypads or other more cumbersome approaches. The
prior test remains up on the Web at: http://labs1.google.com/gvs.html/
Matt Booth, an analyst with Kelsey Group in Pasadena, said Google's
potential entry into the directory assistance market could transform
the economics of the business, where callers to conventional "411"
services can expect to pay $1 or more.
Booth said it costs such services at least 16 cents per call to pay
human operators to answer such calls.
By hooking the automated service into advertising-supported local
business information, Google could be able to slash the costs of
providing directory assistance to around 2 cents per call, while
generating around 10 cents for each business referral, Booth said,
citing estimates by investment bank Thomas Weisel.
"This would allow Google to put its Internet ad business onto mobile
phones," Booth said. "It's voice in and data out," he said,
contrasting the voice search service to how users type keywords into a
browser using classic Google search services.
Start-ups that offer free directory assistance include 1-800-FREE411,
a service Jingle Networks Inc.
In a blog post, Booth said Google is running advertising tests on
Jingle Networks (800-Free411) in two local markets.
Google Voice Local Search can be used from either mobile phones or
land lines. Mobile phone callers can request listing details to be
sent as a text message to their phones.
Callers dial the Google number and can ask for a pizza parlor, dry
cleaner other business by name, Google said. The service runs on
computers and uses no human operators.
"Eventually, I think you will be able to call up and do a voice search
and have general Google results come back," said in a phone interview.
Google said it is seeking to fine-tune the computerized system to
improve how the service recognizes users' requests. Voice Local Search
is available in English, in the United States, and offers only U.S.
local business listings for now.
The Mountain View, California-based company cautioned that Google
Voice Local Search remains an experiment: "It may not be available at
all times and may not work for all users."
Google doesn't charge users for the toll-free call or for connecting
the caller to the business. Regular phone charges may apply, depending
on the user's telephone service provider.
Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited.
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