Google SMS: How Google Took Its Services to Africa
Article by George Norman
On 09 Jul 2009
Last week we reported that the Mountain View search engine giant launched a new suite of mobile apps in Africa called Google SMS that would allow people to search for information by using their mobile phone instead of a web browser. With Google SMS anyone can search for info related to a wide range of topics, from news, weather, sports, health and even agriculture tips. But while performing online searches is something quite common for those of us that have permanent access to a computer and to the internet, it is not as straightforward for someone that has never come in contact with the web.

With Google Trader you can buy and sell stuff easily using your mobile phone, and with Google SMS Tips you can enter a free from text query and Google will use complicated algorithms to identify keywords and bring back a relevant answer in pretty much the same manner that Google Search does. These are all great features I agree, but there is one catch. The words that keep popping up are “just like on the web” or “just like with Google Search” – but internet access has yet to be available to many Africa residents.


One problem arises: how can Google provide an excellent service if the user never had contact with the internet and does not know what he wants from it? If you gave such a person a mobile phone and asked him to use Google SMS to search for anything, what would they search for? It is quite an interesting dilemma, but one that Google foresaw.

The first step was to launch a research experiment in collaboration with, Grameen Applab and network carrier MTN – this was at the start of 2008. The focus of this research was to identify whether delivering info via mobile phones is a feasible idea and to identify what people would look for “online”. This last bit was made especially hard because there was no existing search engine to put to the test – but Google did the next best thing and used human experts to mimic the experience of using a search engine.

“We trained a multilingual team to act as user researchers in 17 carefully selected locations across the country. In each place, they introduced themselves to a cross section of people they met and invited them to participate in a free study that would help create useful services for Ugandans. If the person agreed, the researcher handed them a mobile phone and encouraged them to write a text message containing a question they wanted to know the answer to. (If people had their own phone, we reimbursed them with phone credit.) The text message was then routed to a control room we'd set up in Kampala where a human expert read the text message, typed a response, and sent it back via SMS to the person who asked the question. In the meantime, the interviewer observed and recorded the participant's user experience. This allowed us to record rich qualitative data from hundreds of interviews in just a few days, and to collect quantitative data from hundreds of search queries,” explained Sian Townsend, Mobile User Experience Researcher, and Charles Warren, Mobile User Experience Design Manager.

And that’s how Google managed to get from point nil to launching Google SMS in Africa last week. It simply listened to what people want to find and thought up a means of addressing that need. But that is just one more steo in the evolution of Google SMS. As Fiona Lee, Africa Project Manager,explained at the launch, you should not consider Google SMS a finished product - there is quite a lot of work to be done still.

Tags: Google SMS, Google, Africa
About the author: George Norman
George is a news editor.
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