Google has staged on-and-off again tests stretching back to 2002 of ways to allow phone users to use their voices to ask for information, rather than telephone keypads or other more cumbersome approaches. Now, the search giant is experimenting with speech recognition on telephones by inviting callers to dial 1-800-GOOG-411 (1-800-466-4411) free-of-charge. The service, dubbed Google Voice Local Search, is available in English in the United States, and offers only U.S. local business listings for now. "Using this service, you get fast access to the same local information you'd find on Google Maps," according to the Google Labs site. Google Voice Local Search can be used from either mobile phones or land lines. Mobile phone callers can request listing details to be sent as a text message to their phones. The Mountain View, California-based company cautioned that Google Voice Local Search remains an experiment: "It may not be available at all times and may not work for all users."
Improving quality and falling costs of voice search technology are enticing Internet players Google, Microsoft, and rival Yahoo Incorporated to expand beyond pay-per-click Web search advertising business into pay-per-call marketing. Kelsey Group analysts estimate the U.S. directory assistance market generates $9.4 billion a year. Worldwide, the market rings up $13 billion, according to data published by Opus Research. Matt Booth, an analyst with Kelsey Group in Pasadena, estimates conventional services cost at least 16 cents per call to pay human operators. By hooking the automated service into advertising-supported local business information, Google could be able to slash the costs of providing directory assistance to around 2 cents per call, while generating around 10 cents for each business referral, Booth said.