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Google’s iOS App Now Provides Context-Aware Conversational Search

Functionality is imperfect, but useful, and does more than Siri can do.

Greg Sterling on August 14, 2015 at 12:51 pm

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Google voice search survey

Google recently updated its iOS app to bring context-aware searching to any content within search results. It allows searchers to ask additional questions without formulating entirely new queries.

Here’s how Google explains the functionality in the app update description:

Say “Ok Google” and ask a question while on any Web page to get smart answers about what you are looking at. Try saying “Ok Google, where was he born” while reading an article about William Shakespeare

Recognizing the context and subject matter of the original search or content, users can then ask ambiguous follow-up questions or use pronouns. In the example below, I searched for Santorini Greece. Instead of reformulating the query and identifying that I’m interested in Santorini hotels, I can simply say, “What are the best hotels there?”

Google iOS conversational search

This allows for a rapid succession of follow-up searches. I was permitted to ask a seemingly unlimited number of questions about the queries that I performed. For example, I asked roughly 10 questions in a row about Jimmy Carter (“when was he president,” “where was he born,” “was his wife still alive,” etc.). The quality of answers was variable, but Google always “understood” what I was asking about.

This functionality recognizes that users are typically trying to accomplish complex multi-step tasks when they search (e.g., research a refrigerator, make travel arrangements) or have follow-up questions about topics. One limitation is that there must be a clear subject (“anchor topic”) established before the follow-ups can proceed. One can’t ask, for example, “What’s the most popular tourist destination in the US?” and then expect to immediately be able ask a bunch of questions about that place — without first establishing the identity of the place.

Currently, Siri doesn’t have anything that approximates this capability, which is part of Google’s longer-term movement toward an ideal of making search truly “conversational” or turning search into a true virtual assistant.

About The Author

Greg Sterling

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog, Screenwerk, about connecting the dots between digital media and real-world consumer behavior. He is also VP of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association. Follow him on Twitter or find him at Google+.

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(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)

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