The Growing Importance of Voice Search

More and more websites are trying to exploit the use of voice technology in their search processes now, and have tried to do exactly this. The idea is that you ask the program what you want to search for and it will match this up to its built-in vocabulary and perform the search for you. The problem with CheapAir’s search, however, is that it just can’t understand natural speech.

Apple have done a pretty good job with the iPhone’s Siri. You can chat away to him (or her) in a relatively relaxed way, and he can understand relatively natural conversation and constructions. The trouble is that it can be hard to translate a natural spoken request into a search term that a search engine can understand.

My degree was in Linguistics, so I know that there’s a vast difference between spoken and written language. If you were searching for flights using text, you’d probably type ‘Paris flights’ or ‘flights to Paris’, whereas in conversation, such as with a travel agent, it might be more like ‘I’d like to fly to Paris sometime in the next fortnight, please’. Obviously it’s much harder for a search engine to be able to parse this and translate it into a searchable request.

Man on phone conducting voice search

Unfortunately CheapAir have assumed that people will use far more formalised structures than is really the case, and it can’t deal with anything resembling natural speech. If voice search is to progress, it’s important that not only the technology is good enough to figure out the actual words (people with strong regional accents have struggled immensely with Siri), but also that it knows how people use language out loud.

In a sense, it’s like starting from scratch. Figuring out search terms for a normal search engine can be a little bit hit and miss, but we have a fairly good idea about the frequency and order of words people search, and what sort of vocabulary they use. For example, ‘cheap flights Paris’ would be a fairly standard text search, but out loud this could be more like ‘When is the cheapest flight to Paris in May?’

Google is, as per usual, at the forefront of voice search developments. It currently makes use of voice technology on smartphones as a way to search for information. Presumably the more people that use this technology, the better it’ll be at detecting how people use spoken language, and how they can tweak their technology to better incorporate this. When will we be able to get the same accuracy of results from a spoken search as we would a text search? Who knows. But with searches from phones and tablets on the up, it’s certainly a work in progress.