Tim O’Reilly has an interesting post that went up last Friday on Google’s potential motivation in rolling out Goog411. The obvious answer to the question “Why is Google doing this?” is mobile voice search and directory assistance ($13 billion in annual revenue per Opus Research). The conventional wisdom, which includes me here, holds that Google wants to offer a mobile search product that taps into existing consumer behavior (i.e., directory assistance) and offers the prospect of advertising — eventually.
Currently 1-800-Free411 is the leader in the ad-supported free directory assistance market. But back to O’Reilly’s post. He suggests:
But it also seems to me that there’s a hidden story here about the speech recognition itself. I was talking recently to Eckart Walther of Yahoo!, who used to be at Tellme, and he pointed out that speech recognition took a huge leap in capability when automated speech recognition started being used for directory assistance. All of a sudden, there were millions of voices, millions of accents to train speech recognition systems on, and much less need for the individual user to train the system.
This is reminiscent of a comment that Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google, made to me last year about automated translation, and why it’s getting better. “We don’t have better algorithms. We just have more data.”
In short, I’m speculating that the 1-800-GOOG-411 service is designed to harvest voice data to build Google’s own speech database, rather than licensing from Nuance or another player.
When I spoke with Google about the Goog411 rollout they said that it wasn’t clear they’d ever serve ads against Voice Search. They also said that one of their motives in moving from the semi-stealth 877-520-Find to Goog411 was to open it up to much more call volume to make the system better. Speech recognizers have to be exposed to people’s voices to be refined and improved. And, in this sense, Goog411 is explicitly a bid for more exposure and calls to the service.
Google rarely does anything for a single reason; the company typically has multiple reasons for its actions in my experience. But it’s quite possible that O’Reilly is correct and that Google is partly using Goog411 to build its speech database.
It’s unlikely however that ad-supported directory assistance is far from Google’s mind. But more important is having a voice search product because, as I’ve argued previously, that’s where some of the greatest concentration of “mobile local search” usage is too. And Google wants to be where the usage is.