HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
April 16, 2007, Herald Journal

Google beta tests free voice directory assistance

By MARK OLLIG

Our friends at Google have an experimental computerized telephone speech recognition system all ready for us to try out. . .for free.

Google makes finding – and connecting – your phone to a specific business from any city in the United States fun and easy.

By calling 800-466-4411 or 800-GOOG-411 from any phone, you will be able to test their new voice-activated service called “Google Voice Local Search,” free-of-charge.

This computerized system is located in Google’s experimental lab site in Mountain View, California.

The service runs on computers and uses no human operators.

“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 cell phone keypad,” it said.

Of course, now I was curious – so I reached for my phone – I just had to try it out for myself.

I called the number and was greeted with a friendly sounding computerized male voice that announced, “Calls recorded for quality. . .GOOG 411. . .experimental. . .what city and state?”

The computerized voice needs a name, so I will call it “Goog411.”

“Delano, Minnesota,” I said, articulating my words carefully.

“Delano, Minnesota,” Goog411 replied.

“What business name or category?” The computerized voice on the other end of the phone asked me.

All right, I was ready for that question.

“Restaurants,” I said confidently.

“Restaurants,” quickly repeated the voice from Google.

In less than a second, the Google voice came back and said, “Top eight results. . .number one. . .” (I was then given the name of a well-known Delano restaurant along with its address.) The voice then says, “To select number one you can press or say ‘number one.’”

Goog411 went on to name the next number of the restaurant on their list – but was nice enough to mention that I could say, “Go back” or . . . if I wanted to start a brand new search I could say, “Start over,” at any time.

When I heard the number of the restaurant (number one) that I wanted to know more about, all I needed to do was to say, “Number one . . . details.” Goog411 responded with, “You can also get the details by saying ‘text message.’”

Google has an option to allow the information details to be sent via a text message to my cell phone.

The computerized voice then goes on to repeat the address and the phone number. If I do not speak anything after that, the Google service will say in a friendly voice, “I’ll connect you, hold on. . .” the call is made and I hear the “ring. . .ring,” which was answered by the local Delano restaurant.

Google does not charge for connecting you to the business.

What if I had changed my mind and did not want the call to be completed? I tested this scenario by saying, “Go back,” just when I heard the “I’ll connect you, hold on.” from Goog411. This stopped the call from completing and took me back to the starting list of Delano restaurant names again.

I spent some time testing this out and requested the restaurant listings in the surrounding towns of Howard Lake, Waverly, Winsted, Lester Prairie, Mayer, Montrose, New Germany, Cokato and Dassel.

Each time I was given the “top listings” found for each city that seemed to cover all the restaurants that I knew existed in those areas.

Besides searching each town for restaurants, I also searched for “City Hall,” when asked for what business name or category I wanted to search for. You may also just say the name of the business.

The Google Voice Local Search came back and gave me the information for most of the listings you would find when looking under “City Hall” in the phone books.

I have tried other voice-recognition systems before, but this worked extremely well. I did not have to repeat the word commands as the Google system responded very quickly.

Another service like this that I know about is called Jingle Networks, at 800-373-3411. This is not a totally voice activated service, as I needed to press keys on my phone to access information. I also had to listen to a “commercial” first.

Matt Booth, is an analyst with Kelsey Group (http://www.kelseygroup.com/) in Pasadena, California and he said Google’s possible entry into the directory assistance market could transform the economics of the business.

Google states that their “Google Voice Local Search is still in its experimental stage.” They go on to say that the service may not be available at all times and may not work for all users. Google’s Voice Local Search service is currently only available in English and in the United States.

I expect that Google will, if this beta-test experiment proves to be a success, augment this service by incorporating it into their general Google Search tools on their website.

For more details and information about “Google Voice Local Search,” stop by and visit their website athttp://labs.google.com/goog411.