Google's free 411 service (1-800-GOOG-411) lets you find and call local businesses, but the service isn't exactly as it seems. On the surface, it looks pretty straight forward, but spending lots of money advertising a service that has no clear potential to make money should have seemed a bit suspicious.
In reality, Google's 411 service is about training a powerful speech-to-text engine that will one day find itself in things like video search. The more sample audio they have (people looking for businesses), the more accurate their system will become. Marissa Mayer did an interview with Infoworld in October where she explains what GOOG-411 is really all about.
Whether or not free-411 is a profitable business unto itself is yet to be seen. I myself am somewhat skeptical. The reason we really did it is because we need to build a great speech-to-text model ... that we can use for all kinds of different things, including video search.
The speech recognition experts that we have say: If you want us to build a really robust speech model, we need a lot of phonemes, which is a syllable as spoken by a particular voice with a particular intonation. So we need a lot of people talking, saying things so that we can ultimately train off of that. ... So 1-800-GOOG-411 is about that: Getting a bunch of different speech samples so that when you call up or we’re trying to get the voice out of video, we can do it with high accuracy.
This technique almost reminds me of the Google Image Labeler. On the surface, it appears to be a game, but in reality it is a way for Google to get a bunch of really great meta-data about pictures that would have otherwise never been available. Can you think of any other Google services that are actually a front for something more interesting?
[via Google Blogoscoped]