Talking tech since 2003

Under the heading of “The end of search as we know it,” Google showed off a number of new features for its search product at its I/O conference. One of them, a voice-enabled, conversational way to conduct searches, has been rolled out today for users of Google’s Chrome Web browser, according to search blog Search Engine Land.

When visiting Google.com, you should see a microphone on the right side of the Google search box. Clicking this microphone gives off a short beep that should be familiar to anyone who has used a device with Google Now recently. You can then speak your search query and, if Google is able to come up with an answer for you, it’ll display that answer on the page. Even better: Google can audibly respond with the answer, as well.

At I/O, Google’s Johanna Wright showed off a hotword-triggered version of this search feature that automatically started whenever she said “OK, Google.” That part of the voice search feature is not quite ready, but it should be sometime soon. Until then, you’ll have to click the microphone in order for Google to start listening.

What Google has here so far is pretty impressive. It can answer certain questions for you and, if you ask the right ones in follow up, answer those, too — even if you use a pronoun like “he” or “she” instead of saying the person’s name you searched for. For example, you can ask, “How tall was Abraham Lincoln?” Google will respond with 6′ 4″. You can then ask, “When did he die?” and Google will come back with April 15, 1865. Having to click the microphone icon disrupts the experience a little bit, but once the ability to use a hotword comes, this method of search could have serious potential.

istanbulIt can be tripped up, though. Voice recognition isn’t all the way there, as I asked repeatedly if Google could help me spell “Istanbul.” After about four or five tries, getting results back like “the symbol” and “Eastern bull,” Google found me the right word and even spelled it out. I followed up with, “How many people live there?” Google could only send me to a plain search results page for “How many people live there.” Just to make sure Istanbul wasn’t a fringe search term, I went through the same process for “Pennsylvania.” Google got it on the first try, spelling out the name of my home state, but could not tell me how many people lived there.

I’m sure there are some questions Google can answer right now and some it can’t. But we don’t really have a good idea which those are, and the only method of figuring that out at this point seems to be trial and error. I could see this kind of search being a go-to for writers who need to do some quick fact-checking while writing, but a user simply won’t know if Google’s going to answer their call or fall silent, which makes it hard to break completely away from the PC. In that case, you might as well be typing out your searches and reading yourself.

That’s the price we pay for trying to bring that Star Trek future into our current reality a little too soon. Like I said, Google’s voice search isn’t all the way there yet, but it’s still neat to see Google pushing its search product, and the industry at large, forward.

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