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Google entices mobile phone users with voice search

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September 22, 2008 08:59 IST

Internet search giant Google hopes to hook the millions of cellular phone subscribers in India who do not use data or SMS-based services with its voice-based search. It is conducting pilot projects in Hyderabad and Delhi, and is expected to roll out more in Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata shortly. The company is expected to add audio playback for search queries on local news and entertainment.

About half the mobile phone users in India are believed to be using low-cost handsets that do not have access to data services. A toll-free voice-based search could easily tempt them. "Search still isn't accessible or easy enough for those who just use the phone for voice calls, especially the rural subscribers," says Vinay Goel, head of products, Google India, who visualises web search replicating itself on the voice platform.

The Silicon Valley-based company is in the process of automating the voice search service and is collecting voice and dialect samples from users in Hyderabad and Delhi. "In case the automated service cannot recognise the user query, it is further assisted by a call centre employee, but we do not intend to build the call centre operation," says Goel.

The service is similar to that offered by JustDial, another voice-based search engine. Consumers call up a toll-free number from either a landline or mobile and request the information they need. Google either delivers the information through an SMS or reads it out.

The business potential of such a service is obvious. Local business owners, for instance a restaurant owner in New Delhi, would like to have their addresses listed on Google's local database. Likewise, insurance agents seeking new clientele would want their contacts to be listed as top results for Google's phone search service.

"We are building our voice sample and experimenting with voice recognition tools so that we can deliver value and correct information to the users. In the meantime we are looking at tie-ups with content providers like Yellow Pages to help us build local databases," says Goel.

JustDial claims its phone search offering is used by 24 million users. A drawback in its business model is that it asks for the user's mobile number (since the company texts back the relevant information), which is then sold to marketers and advertisers. Goel maintains that Google is not looking at selling any user information.

Yahoo! has unveiled Yahoo! oneSearch 2.0, which will allow users to initiate searches faster by using text or voice. The company said in an official statement, "...whereas most mobile voice recognition systems are specific to vertical categories such as local listings, Yahoo! oneSearch with voice lets consumers perform 'wide open' searches - returning relevant results for practically every kind of query."

Yahoo! is partnering with vlingo, a leading speech-recognition company, to allow consumers to search for anything - flight numbers, locations, website names or local restaurants - over a voice call. Currently available in the US, the service is expected to be available internationally soon.

Priyanka Joshi in Mumbai