Google Expected to Target Phone Search

By Ben Charny  |  Posted 2005-09-19

Google Expected to Target Phone Search

Whats the next big killer app from search companies? Quickly and easily searching telephone calls for a particular word or phrase—in essence, to Google your calls—is a likely candidate. And it isnt as far off as it might seem.

In the past two years, a number of customer service calling center operators for hire, some with thousands of employees working at the phones, have invested in the technology to identify inept operators and other measures of quality control.

While thats far from a mainstream scenario, these pioneering commercial applications are nonetheless an important first step toward a future in which phone calls will be among the Web pages available by visiting Google, Yahoo and other search engines.

Indeed, Ferris Research analyst Richi Jennings said, leading search engine giants like Google, Yahoo and Microsofts MSN could introduce rudimentary searchable voice services right now.

"The big three of search could all do a good enough job of it to be of some value," Jennings said. "I do see adding into the search universe the ability to search what you said in phone calls."

While acknowledging such a feature is conceivable, and in some cases being worked on, executives from major search companies cautioned during recent interviews that it will be a long, slow slog to get there, and each will have to battle any number of factors beyond each companies control.

"We are definitely evaluating whether to make available a feature like searching voice calls and voice mail and other advanced voice features," said Yahoo spokesperson Terrell Karlsten.

Analysts envision searchable voice applications that would help companies more easily comply with records-intensive Sarbanes-Oxley corporate governance mandates.

More mainstream applications would turn home phone call history into a searchable database to find telephone numbers, names, addresses or even documenting the type of calls someone makes.

Next Page: Mining information.

Mining Information

Some analysts even believe phone calls will be listed among the results from using search engines design to mine information stored on someones computer.

One reason searchable voice applications now appears on technologys horizon is because of the growing consumer interest in VOIP (voice over IP), which is freely available software that lets someone make phone calls using his or her Internet connection.

By treating the phone calls just like a Web page, e-mail or Instant Message, VOIP service providers create yet another Internet-based application for search engines to capture, archive and search.

VOIP calls also makes the transcribing process involved in a searchable voice feature much easier because of their revolutionary technology behind them.

The calls are digitized, and then packaged in routing instructions known as the IP, which is the most common way for machines of all kinds to communicate.

It was IP that, in essence, created the common language that Google and other search engines rely on.

For now, though, there are only a relatively few number of VOIP users—an estimated 5 million in the United States, according to several estimates.

Yet VOIP is clearly on the minds of each of the top search companies, and even companies like eBay that seem an unlikely choice to become a telephone operator.

On Aug. 9, Yahoo formally unveiled Yahoo Messenger with Voice, a version of Yahoos Instant Messager that improves upon the calls sound quality.

Microsoft this week said it had acquired San Francisco-based Internet phone company Teleo.

Future versions of MSN Messenger, Microsofts instant messaging application, will use Teleos technology in order to let users make calls from PCs to land-line or mobile phones.

Next Page: VOIPs rosy future.

VOIPs Rosy Future

Also, VOIP has a rosy future, according to some analysts. VOIP lines are expected to grow significantly to 25 million in the next two years, or about 20 percent of the total number of traditional home phone lines in the United States.

Another positive sign for searchable voice is that speech recognition, which plays a critical role in the process, is improving and becoming less expensive. Once just able to spot a particular word, companies including U.K.-based Autonomy, a call center specialist, has developed technology to recognize spoken phrases, a quantum leap in effectiveness.

The company also recently purchased Irving, Texas-based eTalk, a provider of call center technology.

The combination will hasten the adoption of searchable voice, believes eTalk marketing director Kathy Kuehne.

Baby steps are being taken when it comes to archiving all those calls into a searchable database, for now a big investment in machines and manpower.

Its such a daunting task that Google isnt archiving the PC-to-PC phone calls capable among users of Googles relatively new GoogleTalk, its instant Messaging application. (IM is predominantly designed to be a stripped-down version of e-mail).

Read more here about Googles efforts to crack the IM market.

So for now, theres nothing to actually search. But Mike Jazayeri, product manager for Google Talk, wouldnt rule out an expansion of archiving capabilities in the future.

Competitive forces are also at play. Google and its competitors operate with the kind of tit-for-tat fervor in which new services such as searchable voice calls are created. The result is a hyper-competitive pressure cooker atmosphere all-but necessary to develop "killer apps" that turn industries upside down.

"Theres a variety of future things were looking at providing, but right now were just focused on getting the service out there," said Googles Jazayeri.

"Theres a lot we can do with instant communications that well look at in future. There are other areas were exploring in terms of making it possible. But were certainly in a position to do it."

But for now, most of the searchable voice features are relegated to either the drawing boards of huge search companies, or used by the Department of Homeland Security to find terrorists, call center operators or small innovative companies like San Francisco-based Blinkx, which uses the technology to search through personal video Web logs and Podcasts, which are audio recordings posted on the Internet.

So itll be a long, slow slog before some search engine such as Google will spit out results that include phone calls with a particular word or phrase.

One reason is a possible consumer backlash. Already, privacy concerns abound, even though such services arent still at the gleam-in-the-eye stage.

Its unnerving, say some consumers interviewed for this story, to know that Google and other search operators could conceivably offer up your phone calls for public purview.

"Im not too happy when too much personally identifiable data is collected and owned or controlled by a company," said Mikkel Svendsen, an avid computer user living in Denmark. "Im just not sure of what a company like Google would do with it as time goes by."

More tangible problems include the present-day cost of creating all the bits and pieces for just such a system. Its prohibitively expensive, even for the deep pockets of Microsoft, Yahoo and Google.

For example, while speech recognition software has made headway in automating the transcribing process, to do a credible job requires listening to every call to catch the missed words and phrases. Thats just not financially-feasible at this point.

Archiving also remains a big problem, particularly because of the enormous expense of capturing, recording and storing every phone call someone makes.

Yet, Googles Jazayeri says its conceivable that in the near future, someone could visit the Google Web site, punch in a phrase, and have phone calls appear within the results.

"Google is certainly in a position to do it," he said.

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