There have been quite a few web-based ‘local search’ engines in India. ‘Local search’ is a search engine which enables you to find – at the very least – addresses and telephone numbers of various business establishments, restaurants, movie theatre show timings, etc in your particular city. A few major players in the Indian local search business are Yahoo! India Local Search, JustDial, AskLaila, OnYoMo; plus some niche players such as Foodiebay (restaurant listings and reviews) and Burrp.com (events, restaurants, pubs, cafes; I reviewed an associated service name Burrp! TV earlier).
However, most of these services are intended to provide you with information before you leave your house / workplace. You can look up information for a place you plan ahead in visiting. If you want to make a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to some restaurant or find a business when you’re on the road, you were pretty much screwed. Sadly, most of these local search engines don’t have good mobile interfaces (except for JustDial). JustDial also operates a human-operator assisted telephone helpline (6999-9999). The way this works is that you call the number, a human operator types in your queries into the normal JustDial interface, and then reads out the results to you.
As you can imagine, this procedure can be quite cumbersome. You may be unlucky enough to get an operator who isn’t that good / doesn’t understand what you’re saying. Many times call centre operations are based out of one city, and if you’re calling in from another city then they’ll be thoroughly confused (as I’ve found out at times).
So you were pretty much screwed in such situations…until now. To circumvent these and other problems, Google India launched Local Voice Search about a year ago. It was a laughable attempt at that time, because the whole operation was based on a human-operator picking up the phone and keying in whatever you wanted to know into standard Google Search. Totally not worth talking about. Now however, they have shifted to an automated voice recognition system – which makes the game a bit more interesting.
If you stay in Delhi (NCR), Mumbai, Bangalore or Hyderabad, dial the toll-free number 1-800-41-999-999. This connects you to Google’s automated voice-based local search system. The system will prompt you to speak a type of business (e.g., ‘cafe’, ‘pizza’…), restaurant / shop / other business establishment (e.g., ‘Subway’, ‘DHL’…), or movie for show timings (e.g., The Taking of Pelham 123).
The voice recognition system will they play back what it understood, ask for confirmation, and then prompt you to speak the area name in which you are seeking whatever you want. In case automated voice recognition fails, the system will transfer your call to a call centre where a human operator will assist your search. (Human assist is available only from 8am to 12 midnight though.) Once the system has recognized all your choices correctly, it will read out the top three results for you – and also send you an SMS containing details for free (if you’re calling from a cellphone number).
I have tried out the service a few times, and my reaction to it is mixed.
- Movie timings: Almost always fails to recognize movie names, especially if the movie name is weird (for instance the example I gave). When it does find a match, you don’t get results from all cineplex chains. That’s still understandable, because till now there’s no single service which allows you to check show timings across all chains. (Hint hint, entrepreneurs. Here’s an area you start-up. That is, if movie theatres stop being a dick and give you access to their data.)
- Restaurant / exact business names: Mostly gets it right. The problem is that the contact details supplied are often out-dated / not working, so you’re back to square one. Still, when it works this is a life saver. After all, you’re dialling in toll free, so it’s not as if your money is being wasted.
- ‘Vague queries’ (searching by business type): Hit-and-miss affair. Again, toll-free, so no harm in checking.
The main ‘problem’ with Google Local Voice Search is not so much of not an extensive-enough database or voice recognition. The main problem is that it’s search engine simply does not understand the concept of ‘proximity’. Once I tried to track down courier services in Bhikaji Cama Place or Vasant Kunj. Voice recognition identified the place name correctly both times. Yet, when it came to giving results, it gave me address in South Extension and Lajpat Nagar! (People who live in Delhi will realize how ridiculous this is.) And it’s not as if those services don’t exist in the places I specified (as I found out from JustDial mobile web search).
Clearly, Google Local Voice Search has quite some way to go before it becomes a dependable alternative to ‘calling your friend who lives closest to the area you want to go to’. However, the concept holds so much promise that I’m sure Google (and other companies) will invest into efforts such as this – and we, as end users, would definitely want to adopt services such as this. Searching by speaking out words is so inherently intuitive that it has the potential to bring the power of search to a lot more people and in a lot more environments (d0esn’t tie you down to your computer desk).
Until then, we can only hope for better results than shown in the video below… ;)