Version 2.5 of Google Search App answers questions more effectively than its predecessor, thanks to integration with Google's Knowledge Graph, the company's system for assessing the meanings of queries and for associating related facts.
Google's technical improvements in speech recognition are due to the massive amount of anonymized search query data it collects, and to data available on the open Web. Google research scientist Ciprian Chelba notes in a blog post that the company's speech recognition error rate declines as the amount of data available for analysis rises.
I compared Google Search App to Apple's Siri on an iPhone 4S, over Wi-Fi and AT&T 4G, by asking the same query to each. More often than not, both provided useful results. Google's app performed noticeably faster than Siri in several instances. However, Siri's presentation of data was often more appealing.
[ What does Apple need to do? Read Apple's Exec Shakeup: 10 Necessary Fixes. ]
Query: Who let the dogs out?
Google Search App returned a list of appropriate YouTube videos, atop search results list. Siri made a joke of it, returning spoken and text answer: "Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?"
Score one for Google on accuracy. Score one for Siri on humor.
Query: Where is Paris?
Google Search App returned the spoken answer, "Here is a map of Paris, France." It also showed the map on the phone, atop search links to Wikipedia and Ask.com. Siri returned the spoken and written answer, "Here's Paris," and presented an Apple map.
In this instance, Siri was just as responsive as Google.
Query: Tell me about the Giants.
Google Search App presented its baseball score data from the recent World Series, followed by the usual search results list. Siri offered the spoken and written response, "searching the Web for 'the giants,'" then performed a search using Google.
Siri's results were exactly what the Google Search App had come up with. Why ask Siri when Siri just asks Google?
Query: Show me the closest cafe.
Google Search App responded by voice, "There are several listings for 'cafe' less than a mile away." The app browser page contained a local map topped by a list of nearby cafes, most with the word 'cafe' in their names, along with click-to-call, directions, and website buttons on each listing. Siri responded with the spoken and text answer, "I've found fifteen cafe restaurants fairly close to you. I've sorted them by distance."
Siri's listing was formatted more attractively than Google's, but lacked actionable elements like a click-to-call phone number on the listing page -- tapping on a listing opened a restaurant-specific information card that contained a phone number and website. Neither Siri nor Google took the query literally and returned the one closest cafe. And both failed to return the cafe that was actually closest to me at the time of my query in their respective lists.
Query: What movies are playing nearby?
Google Search App responded by saying, "Movies playing in San Francisco," and presented a scrollable gallery of movie posters with show times at nearby theaters below. Siri responded by saying "I'm looking for movies," followed by "I found quite a number of movies playing nearby today" and an attractively formatted listing designed with a movie marquee motif.
Siri's two-step response was slower than Google's, but the Siri layout was better organized.
Query: What's the price of Google's/Apple's stock?
Google Search App responded by saying the current price of Google's stock and presenting an info card with lots of useful financial information. Asked when the market was closed, Google's software reported after-hours trading. Siri responded just as Google's app did, by reciting the current Apple stock price and presenting a Yahoo Finance chart.
Google did better in this instance. Siri said nothing about after-hours trading and its Yahoo-supplied chart was not interactive like Google's. Tapping on Siri's chart launched the Yahoo-powered iOS Stocks app.
Query: Play the trailer for "The Hobbit."
Google Search App quickly loaded the trailer for the upcoming movie "The Hobbit" at the top of a Web search listing and then opened a separate YouTube tab to start playing the video. Siri responded by asking "which one?" and then listing the "The Hobbit" (2012), its 2013 sequel -- which doesn't yet have an official trailer -- and the 1977 animated version.
Siri deserves credit for realizing there's more than one version of "The Hobbit," but shouldn't have included next year's sequel. Google showed more sense by guessing what I meant.
Query: How do you say "help" in Spanish?
Google Search App responded by saying, "Here is your translation," and then presenting an information card with the word "ayudar." Siri responded, "Let me check that" and then said "I found this," and presented a Wolfram Alpha-supplied page that correctly assessed the question and returned "ayuda" along with a variety of synonyms and related words like "recursos,"evitar" and "asistir." The skeuomorphic design of the page was oddly retro, with the page mocked up to include vertical lines of dot-matrix printer holes.
Siri's answer was more complete, but wasn't served as quickly as Google's. I was surprised that both Apple's and Google's software converted my spoken questions into text with 100% accuracy.
Overall, Siri has an edge on the iPhone because Siri can be launched simply by holding the home button. That process is likely to be quicker than entering a phone passcode and scrolling to the Google Search App to open it.
However, once Google's app is accessible, I found it to be more responsive. Also, I prefer Google's synthesized voice to Siri's. Google's presentation of information could use some improvement.