Computers

Google wants to turn searching into a conversation

June 2, 2013 

Google has folded a voice search feature into its Chrome browser that hints at the future. The idea is to make searching for information a bit more like having a conversation, with the browser responding to your requests either by voice or with relevant links. All this builds naturally from Google’s introduction of its so-called Knowledge Graph about a year ago. The most visible aspect of Knowledge Graph was panels that appeared to the right of the search results, distilling basic information about the subject of the search.

The paneled information doesn’t always appear, depending on the complexity of the search, and that’s an indication of how far we have to go as we explore “semantic search” and “natural language” methods. These are ways we can make searching easier and, let’s hope, still more effective by moving away from a rigorous query language to something more conversational. The onus then falls on the search engine to understand what we’re asking about, and the problem is only exacerbated when we move into the area of human speech.

I decided to explore all this using the new voice search in Chrome, first updating to the most recent version, Chrome 27. To activate voice, I went to the Google search page and clicked the microphone symbol in the query box. When I asked Google who Napoleon was, a voice said, “Here is some information about Napoleon Bonaparte,” and a series of Web links followed.

“What happened to Napoleon at Waterloo?” produced no voice response but another set of links. So far, voice search wasn’t offering anything beyond what I could as easily do with typed queries. But when the questions are completely straightforward, the voice results start to show their stuff. For my next question was “How old was he when he died?” Note that I didn’t use the name Napoleon at all. Instead, I threw Google a pronoun, thinking it would be a sure strikeout pitch.

But the new voice search stayed with me. Google’s conversational approach means that the search engine can refer to your earlier queries and fold them into the mix. Thus a voice told me that Napoleon died at the age of 51. The same pronoun trick worked again when I asked “Where did he die?” and received a spoken answer of “Longwood.” Now Longwood House was Napoleon’s last home, on the island of Saint Helena, but Google just said Longwood. When I asked “Where is Longwood?” I received a map of Longwood, but in Florida, not Saint Helena.

The errors in my search make it a bit comical, but I’m impressed with the progress both Google and Apple are making in voice response. Yes, Google swung and missed on the location question, and when I asked it where Waterloo was, it gave me Waterloo, Iowa, instead of the real location in present-day Belgium. So its conversational capabilities can track pronouns but quickly get lost in extended queries involving other aspects of the subject. Nonetheless, current work on connecting ongoing searches (Bing does this through its adaptive search strategy) is the beginning of an effort to create search engines that can connect ideas and parse language.

One aspect of Google’s new search seems obvious: The more you use Google products, the more fine-tuned your results can be, from your current location to your personal schedule. Like Apple, Google would love to house your information and serve it up conveniently, ensuring a long-term relationship. Voice searching is a way of exploring this space, one that’s more useful on a phone than on the desktop, at least for now. But natural language search eventually will make complicated queries a thing of the past, no matter which information provider you choose.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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