Yahoo's mobile voice search good, not great

It's not perfect, but the company's voice-powered mobile search technology is worth using. It's a sign of things to come as phones and wireless networks improve.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read

Search is inextricably woven into the use of computers, but it's still a relative rarity when it comes to the mobile phone market.

That's why I was keen to try Yahoo's attempt to make the technology more approachable through its free voice-controlled search product, OneSearch with Voice. My overall assessment after trying it on a BlackBerry Pearl 8130 Yahoo lent to me: the software is useful, but it whetted my appetite more than it actually transformed my life.

Pressing the phone's 'talk' button initiates a OneSearch with Voice query.
Pressing the phone's 'talk' button initiates a OneSearch with Voice query. Yahoo

To use OneSearch with Voice, you hold down your phone's "talk" button and speak a few words into the phone. The phone sends what you said to Yahoo servers that convert it into text and run a search tailored for mobile phone users. Whereupon, the results and sometimes an accompanying ad appear on the phone.

It didn't always produce the right answer, but it did so often enough and easily enough that I found myself turning to the application more and more frequently. And its textual results were more useful for me than Google's 1-800-GOOG-411 voice-only search service.

There's no secret why Yahoo is eager for the market: mobile search is growing fast and is a powerful conduit for targeted advertising.

Google long since passed Yahoo for search on personal computers, but the mobile market is relatively immature--and it's growing fast. From June 2007 to June 2008, "the number of people accessing mobile search at least once a week grew 50 percent in Europe, with France and Spain leading at a rate of 69 percent and 63 percent, respectively," according to ComScore analyst Alistair Hill, and the number in the U.S. grew 104 percent to 10 million. But Google leads Yahoo by a wide margin for mobile search usage in the U.S., U.K., Italy, France, Spain, and Germany.

So how's does OneSearch with Voice stack up?

What's good
The best thing about the service, far and away, is that it frees you from your phone's keyboard. Even on finger-friendly phones such as the BlackBerry, typing is a pain. With voice control, you can run searches much more easily.

I'll plead the Fifth about whether I tried OneSearch while driving, but there are other times when one-handed typing on a phone keypad is difficult. One early aha moment came while I was walking through the rain holding an umbrella. Another was lugging a bag through the airport. With OneSearch with Voice, I could have my say, then check back after a few moments to see if the phone fetched what I wanted rather than trying to pay attention to typing and walking at the same time.

The service was useful for me on a number of occasions. It worked particularly well in a classic businessperson-on-the-go scenario, looking up hotel addresses and business phone numbers as I was en route.

Another plus: the voice-recognition software adjusts to your voice over time. I noticed it did indeed become more accurate over time. Supposedly it learns faster if you manually correct its misunderstandings, but I was lazy more often than not; it's easier to retry with a new search than to poke around on the keyboard.

Example results from OneSearch with Voice.
Example results from OneSearch with Voice. Yahoo

Behind the scenes, Yahoo uses Vlingo's voice recognition engine to process the speech. (However, I couldn't help observe that a search for "Marco Boerries," the name of the Yahoo executive overseeing the mobile software effort, retrieved correct results on the first try, but searching for "Dan Farber," the name of CNET News' editor in chief, produced results for "Ann Arbor.")

What's bad
OneSearch with Voice, alas, falls down sometimes. On many occasions it didn't translate my voice into text correctly, and on the times it worked, the search results weren't always up to snuff. One day, while rushing to catch a flight, I was pleased to find I could easily get the flight's status information through OneSearch with Voice, and even more pleased to find that a delay granted me about an hour extra of scheduling leeway. My relief turned to dismay when I arrived at the airport and found there was no delay at all.

Yahoo tunes the search results for the sorts of information that would be handy for people on the road. That's fine when you're trying to find the restaurant to meet your friends or fetch movie times, but I found it limiting for rarer tail-end searches. Examples that weren't so great for me: trying to find the time of the moonrise and to learn a little about the cause of blue-baby syndrome.

The interface left something to be desired for me. It's easy to start the software and fire off a verbal search query, but dealing with the results was awkward. In particular, I had trouble editing my query sometimes. I suspect some of the blame lies with the BlackBerry's interface.

"There's still lots of room for improvement," said Boerries, head of Yahoo's Connected Life division, which oversees the company's effort to expand its Internet power so people can reach it with phones and smart, networked TV sets.

The most trying aspect of OneSearch with Voice was getting answers swiftly, or even at all. That problem might have been caused by Verizon's overtaxed network in San Francisco, or by the BlackBerry's constrained hardware, so Yahoo probably can share the blame.

Despite the bumps on the road, though, OneSearch with Voice shows clearly the direction mobile search is headed as phones get smarter and wireless networks get faster.