Google's 'conversational search' stinks: But it's destined to change search forever

Google's 'conversational search' stinks out of the gate, but give it time and it will change search forever.

You want to have a horrible conversation? Try asking Google Search a question. If Google can, it will reply back with a spoken word response. Now go ahead and ask a follow-up question. You might get a reply, but the odds are good Google will serve up the virtual equivalent of a blank stare.

Don't be too hard on Google. You might also want to mark your Google Calendar, because it will be the first time you ever had a conversation with a search engine.

Amit_Google-io.png(Google's VP of search Amit Singhal at Google I/O and talking about the future of search for Google.)

Google updated its desktop Chrome browser Wednesday, adding to it a new impressive feature called "conversational search." The feature is also available via Google's Mobile Search App on Android. Google says Chrome for iPhone and iPad, with voice search, is coming soon.

The technology was previewed last week at Google I/O. The feature is available now, but is very rough. If you're expecting a conversation what you'll get instead, if you're lucky, is a brief question and answer session at best.

Over the next months and years, Google's "conversational search" will improve and will change search as we know it. Who knows, maybe the next generation of Internet searchers will look at us funny when we tell them about how we googled with keywords and boolean search techniques.

What is conversational search? The predominant way we search Google today is by typing in a search query. Next, we scour the blue link search results. If we're lucky Google Now serves up an information card with an answer and relevant details. Conversational search is different. The technology can take spoken natural language queries and understand them in the context of who you are, where you are, and anticipate your next question. To use Google "conversational search" you'll need to make sure you've updated your Chrome browser to version 27. Android users just head over to Google Voice Search on your phone or tablet and start up a conversation - well not quite. Here is an example of my first exchange with Google.


First I clicked on the microphone in the Google search field and asked:

"What's Jay Z's real name?" Google answered back, "Jay Z's full name is Shawn Corey Carter"

"Where was he born?" Google answered back, "Jay Z was born in Brooklyn"

"Who is he married to?" Google says, "Jay Z's spouse is Beyonce since 2008."

"What's her real name?" Google says, "Beyonce's full name is Beyonce Giselle Knowles."


You get it, right? Google was smart enough to hold a crude conversation with me. It understood my questions, but more importantly it correctly identified the pronouns "he" and "her" as Jay Z and Beyonce. To do this Google taps into its Knowledge Graph that correlates massive amounts of data and finds relationships to terms such as Jay Z and Beyonce to find contextual meaning. Next, Google leverages its rich database of commonly asked questions, remembers your previous search query (so it can better answer the following question), and anticipates what your next question is going to be (via Google Now). And this is just the beginning, according to Google.

Not only does Google say the conversations will get better and deeper, but it will introduce voice activate search. With voice activated search when you want to spark up a conversation with Google (or search for something) all you have to say is "OK Google." That will trigger Google to go into search mode and listen for a query. Google says it's working on how to implement this "hotword" technology so the creepy factor of having Google eaves drop on us all the time won't be an issue. Good luck with that, by the way.

Google's conversational search is also location aware, so you can ask how to get somewhere and then where to find a good place to eat. When I tested those features Google choked. In fact, Google acknowledges things are going to be rough for a while, but promises they'll get better soon. In my example above when I asked about when Beyonce's next concert was, in the form of "When is her next concert?" Google displayed blue link results instead of a voice reply. Worse, the top link had nothing to do with Beyonce and was for the San Antonio Symphony. Huh?


In my tests I found the further along you got into a conversation with Google the more prone it was to flounder. The most successful "conversations" were asking predictable questions about well known people and places. But sometimes those didn't go well. When I asked: "What's the capital of New York state?" Google read back to me "The capital of New York state is Albany" I lobbed a softball next. "What's the capital's population." Instead of answering back, Google delivered normal blue links with the top result a site that listed states and capitals.

What Google says its striving for is a Star Trek-like search experience, in which a computer understands who you are, where you are, grasps what you want, and can answer back. It's hard not to get excited about what's next. Just be prepared for some bad small talk until we get there.

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