What's the 411 on GOOG-411?

Just as Google has become synonymous with "performing a Web search," 411 is understood to mean "information" -- as in "what's the 411?" I was thus surprised to discover, from a billboard, no less, that the king of search is taking on the long-reigning ruler of phone-directory assistance with its new free GOOG-411 service. (Apparently, the service has around for a while now; it was just under my radar until I saw the sign.)

The service is pretty straightforward: Dial 1-800-GOOG-411 on your telephone. The recorded voice on the other end will ask for your city and state (you can also provide a ZIP), then the business name or category you're looking for. If you specify a business name and it's the only one in town, it will offer to connect you or provide more details, i.e. phone number and address.

If you asked for a general category ("gourmet croutons") or a business that has more than one location in your city ("McDonalds"), it will (theoretically) provide you a numbered list of businesses that meet your criteria. When you hear what you want, you say the number, after which you can connect to the business or get more info.

Just like 411, right? Well, not exactly.

First, like I said, it's free.

Second, you don't need to know the name of the business you're calling; you can ask for a generic type of business, then sift through the listings to find what you seek.

Third, you can say "text message" during your exchange, and the service will send you basic information about your requested business via SMS.

Fourth, you can say "map it," and you'll get a text message with the details of your search, plus a link to a map of your results.

And fifth, you don't ever speak to a human being, which isn't necessarily a good thing if you're not entirely sure about the name of the business, for example.

I gave the service a try this afternoon, just to see how well it worked. While there's potential here, perhaps, Google has some kinks to work out.

On my first attempt, I got a recorded message saying the system was swamped and that I needed to try calling back again later.

My second attempt proved successful: I recited my city and state, then the name of a local business that I know exists. It quickly found the listing, provided me the details I wanted (number and address), and offered to connect me.

My third attempt was another disappointment. I said "Sacramento, California" for my city and state. For my business type, I said "sushi." Yet the service thought I said "fishing" and started calling up a list of fishing businesses. It would be nice if the service would repeat your request, just to confirm it was interpreted correctly. I tried to start over by saying "start over," but I got disconnected. (Apparently, you can also use your keypad to type in your business type, just in case you're inarticulate, as I appear to be.)

On my fourth attempt, I said "Sacramento, California," then "Japanese food," which it did correctly understand. But from there, the experience was downhill once again. It rattled off the first listing, too quickly for me to understand. Then it disconnected me again before I could hear any more listings.

On my fifth and final attempt, which was also a success, I gave my ZIP code when it prompted me for my city and state. It correctly identified my city. I then said "Starbucks," and it came up with the closest one in the area. When it offered to connect me or provide me details, I said "text message." The service immediately disconnected me, without a word of confirmation or farewell -- but seconds later, I indeed received a text with the address and number of the Starbucks. That's pretty slick.

While there are some neat features here, the service needs some work. The fact that it was swamped and that it disconnected me twice suggests Google is having problems on the back end. Maybe the company wasn't expecting its service to be so successful. Also, the voice recognition might just need some tweaking (or else I need to work on my enunciation if, indeed, I pronounce "sushi" as "fishing").

Also, the computerized voice that helps you is a bit grating and talks too quickly when rattling off a business name. Moreover, unless you've done some research in advance, you won't know that you can give a ZIP instead of a city or state, that you can key in information instead of saying it, or that you can request a text message.

Technical issues aside, it will be interesting to see where Google takes this service once it's perfected. The GOOG-411 FAQ says that advertising opportunities aren't currently available, though one wonders if that will change. Will companies be able to pay a premium to be the top listing when Bob calls up asking for "pizza" or "fishing gear"?

And at a higher level, what does Google have to gain from this? Well, it's a means of further enhancing its search services, of course, making it an even more compelling one-stop shop for all your information needs, both from the desktop and on the go. The "map it" has obvious utility, in case you don't have the time or the free hands to do a search yourself on your mobile device (if, for example, you're driving.)

I also imagine scenarios where a user with a smart phone looks up a business through Google on his or her mobile Web browser, then clicks a "call it" feature to connect and talk, rather than dialing the digits him- or herself.