Google gives acte de présence with 1-800-GOOG-411

Barely waiting for Microsoft and Tellme to return from their honeymoon, Google Labs recently launched Google Voice Local Search, an experimental 411 (directory assistance) service. For the moment, 1-800-GOOG-411 just offers US local business listings, directly accessible from any US phone. But with a Grandstream SIP phone, an Asterisk PBX and a gateway like FreeWorldDialup, this minor nuisance is quickly bypassed.

So instead of speculating if, when and how Google will integrate the new service in its pay-per-click or pay-per-call advertising model, I just called 1-800-GOOG-411 for a quick try-out. Jingle Networks‘ 1-800-FREE-411 service was chosen as Google’s sparring partner.

To make the test a bit more fun and real for myself, I decided to only search for US businesses that I have actually visited at some point in time. This way I not-so-randomly picked David’s World Famous catering service in Burlington, MA; the MIT COOP bookstore in Cambridge, MA; and the Starbucks on El Camino Real in Palo Alto, CA.

First some food from David’s World Famous. My call to 1-800-GOOG-411 was answered by a neutral-sounding male voice saying “calls recorded for quality”. Notice the absence of any verb? After two seconds I got a pre-recorded prompt “GOOG-411 experimental. What city and state?” My answer “Burlington, Massachusetts” was well recognized and explicitly confirmed by the system. To the next question “what business name or category?” I said “David’s World Famous”. There was a short database lookup and after 21 seconds into the call, I got presented with the top-2 results. I chose the first one and could have been connected directly to the catering service after 41 seconds, if I had wanted to. Instead I asked for more address details, which another male TTS voice read aloud twice, presumably to give me a chance to jot it down. The phone number was read correctly, in a conversational, natural way. After this self-chosen digression, I was connected to the David’s World Famous answering machine – not a surprise, really, as the local time in Massachusetts at that moment was well after midnight.

I then tried the same procedure through 1-800-FREE-411, at least that’s what I had in mind. “Welcome to 1-800-FREE-411! Press 9 now to get the last number you requested”, said a female pre-recorded voice. I wasn’t interested in that, so I kept silent. After 12 seconds, a first commercial offered me to take part in Stonebridge Life’s $25,000 give-away. Er, maybe some other time. Thirty-one seconds into the call, I got a “What city and state, please?” prompt, and said “Burlington, Massachusetts”. There was no explicit confirmation; instead the system immediately continued with “Are you looking for a business, government or residential listing?” “A business listing”, I said. Again no confirmation, but another prompt “Would you like to search by name or by category?” “By name”, I answered. “OK, what listing?” “David’s World Famous”, I said. Now things became funny. The call was sponsored by “Girls Gone Wild”, who offered me two videos for free, meaning I just had to pay shipping and handling costs. Yeah, right. Not that I dislike oriental food, but hot ‘n’ spicy DVDs were not exactly what I had asked for. Anyway, back to the call. A flat female voice brought me down to earth with the message “the number you requested is seven eight one – two two nine - eight seven eight six”. You would think any decent VUI designer knows by now that US phone numbers don’t get read this way, but apparently not so at 1-800-FREE-411. What’s worse, after I’d heard the requested phone number, I was presented with two options: hear it again, or get connected to … Girls Gone Wild. While I was waiting for the obvious third option that would connect me to David’s World Famous, the system again threw the flat-spoken number at me, and prompted me for yet another repeat. Just when I thought I was finally going to be connected, the system thanked me for calling, made some more publicity about their own website “to learn about other special offers” and then hung up. Two minutes and five seconds had gone by, and I was still left with an empty stomach.

After the stomach, time for the brain. I called 1-800-GOOG-411 again, now searching for the MIT Coop bookstore. The speech recognition of “Cambridge, Massachusetts” went smoothly, as expected. Alas, the business name turned out to be more problematic, with its two abbreviations. “MIT” stands for Masschusetts Institute of Technology, and is customarily pronounced one letter at a time: M-I-T. The word “Coop”, although an abbreviation for “cooperative“, is pronounced as an acronym over there, rhyming with “loop” or “soup”. Being a foreigner, I pretended not to know this and said “M-I-T Co-op” at first. Successive attempts to recognize this same pronunciation generated a “no match” leading to a “try again” prompt, and a low-confidence false match with an attached explicit confirmation prompt. The system then presented me with some indirect matches from its database, all of which were irrelevant. After the fourth list item, the Google voice suggested to start all over again, so that’s what I did and said. I now pronounced MIT as an acronym, sounding like the German preposition “mit”, and stuck to “Co-op” for the second part. Apparently I guessed right, because the system literally confirmed my incorrect pronunciations and offered me a short list of three MIT Coop locations. I chose the second one, and after one minute and fifty-five seconds, I was connected to the answering machine of the MIT Coop on Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

My first search for the MIT Coop at 1-800-FREE-411 failed immediately with the message “We’re sorry but no live operators are available at this time. Please try again later”. For an automated system, that’s an illogical answer, especially since 1-800-FREE-411 explains in its own FAQ that they are ”no longer supporting live operator services from certain localities”. Subsequent calls [1,2,3,4] did go through, but they all suffered from no matches and false matches, irrespective of my pronunciation of “MIT Coop”. I couldn’t verify if “MIT Coop” was in-grammar or out-of-grammar, but the corresponding web search did return one entry. On the positive side, 1-800-FREE-411 transfers callers to an operator after two failed recognition attempts.

My last search for Starbucks Coffee on El Camino Real in Palo Alto, California went without a glitch at both 1-800-GOOG-411 and 1-800-FREE-411. With Google, I was transferred after 45 seconds; with the other system I got to hear the complete number after one minute and fifty seconds. This time the irrelevant ads were from InCharge Debt Solutions and American Express, respectively.

Before we draw some conclusions, first a warning: no speech recognition system should ever be evaluated on the basis of a few calls and utterances made by a single speaker over a single channel. To do so would not only be unfair, but also unscientific and possibly completely wrong. This being said, my first impression is thar Google’s potential entry in the automated DA space should be a major concern for all other players on the US 411 market. As could be expected, the 1-800-GOOG-411 voice user interface is clean and snappy, with various error recovery mechanisms already in place; speech recognition looks good; and the direct transfer to the requested number is an obvious functionality that’s blatantly missing with 1-800-FREE-411. So looking from the technology side, Google seems to know what they’re doing – hardly a surprise.

A bigger challenge for Google or any competitor will be to balance the economic aspects of sponsored local audio ads (remember the DMarc acquisition) with the human interaction limitations of a spoken phone interface. A caller’s tolerance for inserted ads is inversely proportional to the degree of certainty with which the business or category name is entered. If I ask for Starbucks, I want Starbucks’ phone number; but if I just want coffee, multiple relevant results are expected, including sponsored transfers and special offers. With its army of natural language processing specialists, the richness and vastness of its data, and its very deep pockets, Google is well placed to shake the US Directory Assistance industry, if it wants to. Unless it has other priorities, with even bigger returns.

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