Yesterday Google announced that it was shutting down 800-GOOG-411, the free directory assistance (or voice search) service it launched in April, 2007. Back in those days the mobile landscape looked very different than it does today. It was challenging to conduct searches on most mobile phones and the iPhone was in its infancy. The first Android handset, the G1, was still almost 18 months away.
The conventional wisdom was that “free DA” would become a booming segment in mobile, with lots of usage and potential ad revenues. Many of the large telco-incumbents that provide traditional, paid 411 services rushed to create their own free services to compete with GOOG-411 and Jingle (800-Free-411), the market leader. Those included AT&T’s 1-800-YellowPages and Verizon’s 1-800-THE-INFO. Both of those services still exist, though they’re not promoted.
There were several other services that also emerged including most notably Bing 411, which began as LiveSearch 411 and 1-800-Call-411. The backbone of the Microsoft service is based on Tellme, which the company acquired in 2007.
Bing-411 is and has been the best of the free 411 offerings, including GOOG-411. Bing-411 has more content (e.g., directions, traffic, weather, movies) and a broader array of features and capabilities.
However despite the potential consumer appeal of free DA services — consumers pay $1.75 or more for 411 calls — there has never been significant usage, comparatively speaking. Surveys by Opus Research and comScore found that 66% to 77% of respondents have “never heard of” or “never used” specific free DA options.
The “brand” recognition of traditional 411 combined with a lack of sustained promotion for the free alternatives has meant a lack of mainstream awareness, let alone adoption. Furthermore, many people have weaned themselves off 411 calling altogether because they know it costs money and they’ve now got alternatives (search, apps) on the handset. The rise of smartphone and voice-powered search now means that people have much less need for directory assistance than in the past.
Most 411 calls now happen in the car and over 90 percent of those calls are for business name searches. However “what city, what listing” can’t compare to 250,000 apps and access to the full internet. Accordingly traditional 411 call volumes are declining between 15 to 25 percent annually as smartphone penetration grows.
At some point in the last three years Google decided that GOOG-411 was mainly a tool to collect “utterances” and a foundation for other services. According to an October 2007 interview at the Web 2.0 conference Google’s Marissa Mayer said that Google was using the service for several reasons other than as a potential advertising platform:
You may have heard about our [directory assistance] 1-800-GOOG-411 service. Whether or not free-411 is a profitable business unto itself is yet to be seen. I myself am somewhat skeptical. The reason we really did it is because we need to build a great speech-to-text model … that we can use for all kinds of different things, including video search.
The speech recognition experts that we have say: If you want us to build a really robust speech model, we need a lot of phonemes, which is a syllable as spoken by a particular voice with a particular intonation. So we need a lot of people talking, saying things so that we can ultimately train off of that. … So 1-800-GOOG-411 is about that: Getting a bunch of different speech samples so that when you call up or we’re trying to get the voice out of video, we can do it with high accuracy.
In its “farewell GOOG-411″ post Google said something similar:
GOOG-411 was the first speech recognition service from Google and helped provide a foundation for more ambitious services now available on smartphones, such as:
Google never tried to monetize GOOG-411, though it could have. The decision was probably based on the idea that it wanted to drive as many calls as possible (to capture speech utterances) and didn’t want to do anything to create barriers or objections to usage. Google is now suggesting that non-smartphone users (75 percent of the US market) substitute its SMS-based search service (466453) after GOOG-411 shuts down in November.
People should also try Bing 411, which Microsoft quickly reminded us yesterday was still going strong. Indeed, I think most people would be surprised by how useful the service is and how it can complement smartphone-based search. But Microsoft too has had its doubts about Bing-411 as a mainstream tool and potential ad platform.
Now there’s an opening, however, as Google is exiting the market. The question is whether Bing can exploit that opportunity to its advantage.
Postscript: Gary Price has a nice rundown on the full list of content types offered on Bing-411.