Google's latest Chrome build allows desktop users to interact with its iconic search engine simply by having a conversation.
The new Conversational Search service, already present in the mobile offerings of Google Now, is a big upgrade from Google's previous voice-operated desktop search, even if it still makes you feel dumb testing it out in a crowded office. Expect some funny looks when you start asking your computer questions.
As the name implies, the fledgling feature allows you to have a somewhat natural conversation with Google's search engine instead of worrying about carefully constructed search strings. You can simply ask Google questions on the topic you're interested in, and it will provide results based on "hotwords."
You can try conversational search out for yourself by updating to Chrome 27. If you already have Chrome you should be able to update in the browser, though on Macs Chrome seems to be having trouble detecting the update. Afterward, go to Google's homepage, and click the microphone button in the right side of the search bar.
I started my test of the new service by asking Google "Where was Frank Sinatra born?" to which it replied "Hoboken." I then asked "When was he born?", "When did he die?", and "How did he die?" in rapid succession.
Using its Knowledge Graph, which interprets bits of search information by their relations to other bits of information, Google was able to accurately interpret my use of the pronoun "he" to mean "Frank Sinatra." There was no need for me to restate the subject every single time (if you're curious, the answers are 1915, 1998, and a whole list of diseases).
Google also pulls location data from your IP address, so you can ask "Where can I get food?" and have it list nearby restaurants.
Other than the addition of context-sensitive commands, voice search functions much the same as before. Results are presented exactly the same as standard text searches, though many succinct, factual answers will be read out loud in a cheery female voice.
In addition to facts about Frank Sinatra, Google was able to dictate to me how far it is from San Francisco to New England and what city is the capital of California, and answered my question regarding driving directions to Tijuana from San Francisco.
The new voice search even includes some fun Easter eggs. For instance, ask "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?"
More to come
Presumably, this is just the first step for Google, as many of the other features discussed at I/O last week are still MIA. Voice activation isn't implemented in the current version of conversational search. You have to physically click the microphone for each query, rather than saying "Okay, Google..."
And before you get too excited, know that Google's conversational search is definitely still voice search. If you have a tendency to mumble, as I do early in the morning, you're going to have a tough time getting the search engine to figure out what you're asking.
Conversational search also seems limited to a few contextual forms. While the Sinatra example worked great, other questions stumped Google. For example, I asked "What's the capital of Colorado?" to which Google cheerily replied, "The capital of Colorado is Denver." However, when I asked "How do I get there?" Google was stumped. It failed to interpret "there" correctly, and instead of providing directions to Denver, it simply returned results as if I'd typed in the words "How do I get there?" as shown below.
There's also currently a bug in which Google occasionally presents you with a "No Internet Connection" error, even if your Internet is working fine. Then again, conversational search is brand new. We'll hope that Google already is at work to kill any lingering bugs.