Google Search becomes a better listener, finally

You may not think you need voice recognition in your search, but Google does. It's now opening its ears for all users on a broad range of queries that it began testing a year ago.

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
3 min read
Better, broader voice recognition that first debuted in Google Now is working its way across Google's services, including Search. Google

Google has spent the past year developing its voice recognition tools, and on Wednesday the company announced that the voice recognition tools in Google Now will be added to Google Search.

You'll now be able to ask Google Search the same kinds of questions as Google Now, further connecting the services. Queries about five expansive categories make accessible in Search a lot of information from your Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google+. The categories include scheduled flight information, photos from Google+, event information from Google Calendar, purchase data from Gmail shipping notices, and restaurant reservations, from Gmail and Google Calendar.

The new voice-powered Search will work in most Google apps, including the Chrome browser on desktops and mobile and the Google Search apps on Android and iOS. Google will be rolling out the update over the next few days. It ought to be available to all Google users by the end of the week, according to Google spokeswoman Roya Soleimani.

The new features leverage Google's Knowledge Graph and contextual voice recognition that first debuted in a field test a year ago. The information exposed in Search is limited by Google account, so you can't search another person's Gmail unless you've accessed his or her account.

The new voice recognition features are robust enough to be able to work with different ways of formulating the same question. Soleimani said that asking, "What time is my flight?" will elicit the same answer as "When is my flight?" or "When does my flight leave?"

These kinds of searches have been available for a while now in Google Search only as typed queries for people participating in the field test. But this is the first time Google's voice search will be able to recognize this sort of typed query and voice query by default.

Contextual search and recognition allow people to ask more natural follow-up questions. "When is my dinner reservation?" could be followed with, "How do I get there?" Google Search then will open Google Maps to direct you to the restaurant. However, while contextual search is available in Google Search, it won't work yet with the new query categories that pull information from your Google accounts. Google would not give a timeline for when it would be available, either.

A popular search, said Soleimani, is for nutritional information at a restaurant. People like asking about the calorie count of different types of food and beverages, she explained, by starting with the query, "How many calories are in avocados?" and then following with, "What about sake?" and "What about rice?"

Other benefits of the new features are that you don't have to wrack your brain trying to remember when you got the airline reservation confirmation e-mail or where in Google+ your favorite photo from your last vacation is. "This information is just for you -- secure, via encrypted connection, and visible only to you when you're signed in to Google," wrote Roy Livne, Google Search product manager in the blog about the update.

The downside is that you might not want to be able to access all your services from the same search box. The improvements come without a change to Google privacy policy, but Google is still likely to be learning a lot from how you search your account.

Not all the features from the field trial are being made available to the general Google-consuming public at this time. Drive integration is limited to people participating in the field trial, as is exposing information from some e-mails in Search. People in the trial will be able to stay in, said Soleimani.

She wouldn't reveal how many people are in the field trial, saying only that it was a "substantial" number.

If the tying of Search so strongly to your personal information raises your hackles, CNET has a guide on how to opt out of the integration.

Update, 1:05 p.m. PT: Clarifies that the new queries won't work with contextual searches.