Google has made untold strides in search engine use – steadily making the process easier and more intuitive at every stage. However, its latest initiative is leading users back to the traditional art of conversation, as a new spoken search tool gets the discussion going using natural language and a more semantic search.
Google’s new ‘Conversational Search’ function was unveiled at its Google I/O Conference in San Francisco in May. It is available to users of Google’s Chrome browser and potentially represents a huge leap forward in how search engines are used.
Put simply, if you have the latest version of Chrome, you can voice your search by clicking on the microphone icon in the main search field. This is not such an innovative development, however, the new function ‘speaks’ back to you, speaking and displaying your words on screen just as you have said them. Then, your answer will appear on screen and via your computer’s speakers.
Pretty impressive so far. However, the next stage is what is really pushing the boundaries. You can continue your spoken ‘conversation’ with Google without having to laboriously repeat search terms. For example, your first question might be ‘How old is David Beckham?’ Having received your answer, you might want to further enquire as to where he lives. You can now do this by simply asking ‘Where does he live?’ Google will remember ‘David Beckham’ and conduct the search without the need for you to repeat his full name. Result? A more natural-sounding process that makes full use of pronouns and shortcuts to speed things up.
It goes further. The enquiry, ‘Who is his wife?’ reveals the answer as ‘Victoria Beckham’. However, the next question of ‘How old is she?’ reveals her age, not that of her footballing husband. For the technology is able to decipher pronouns and carry on the natural language progression. And superficially simple things such as getting the search technology to recognise that a query containing the word ‘old;’ relates to an question about age hides some very sophisticated algorithm programming behind the scenes.
Other examples of this impressive technology include being able to take useful shortcuts based on your own personal details that are accessible by Google. The simple question ‘Will it rain tomorrow’ can be answered by Google accessing your geographical location and analysing the meteorological information for that specific area. Again, the conversational search function assumes it is answering a question about the local weather by your use of the word ‘rain’. Or, if you use Google Calendar, a simple ‘What am I doing today?’ can pull up your private agenda.
As with any new technology, Google’s conversational search is not perfect. The further into a conversation you go, the more likely it is that it will eventually lose its train of thought. Sometimes, seemingly simple queries can be greeted with unexpected levels of cyber confusion.
However, while the technology has gone live on the latest version of Google Chrome, it has not yet been formally launched, simply released unobtrusively. Google engineers are working on ironing out gremlins and strengthening the technology. For example, typing in a ‘conversational search’ term, such as ‘How tall is he?’ will not currently work; less-specific queries like this must be spoken to work properly.
Another likely development will be the introduction of a so-called ‘hotword’, such as ‘Ok Google’ that will activate voice recognition conversational search. It is still early days for Conversational Search, but its functions are improving all the time, and it looks set to revolutionise the way that users search online and search engines respond in the future.