Google SMS: Taking Google Services to Africa
Article by George Norman
On 30 Jun 2009
Google has announced the launch of Google SMS, a suite of mobile apps that aid users in accessing the information they need. As the name so adequately points out, the information these users need will be delivered to them via SMS; the info is related to a all sorts of topics, ranging from news, weather, sports, health and even agriculture tips. According to the Mountain View search engine giant Google SMS was launched in Africa because in that part of the world mobile phone usage is widespread, but computer usage is not.

“In many places around the world, people look to their phones, rather than their computers, to find information they need in their daily lives. This is especially true in Africa, which has the world’s highest mobile growth rate and where mobile phone penetration is six times Internet penetration. One-third of the population owns a mobile phone and many more have access to one,” explained Joe Mucheru, Head of Google Sub-Saharan Africa, & Fiona Lee, Africa Project Manager.


Included in Google SMS is Google Trader, an app that aids buyers and sellers get in touch with one another. If you have something for sale, it doesn’t matter what, be it crops, livestock, a used car or your skills, you can post a “for sale sign” via SMS using Google Trader. Other users will be able to see your post and get back to you. Alternatively, when you want to purchase an item, you can use Google Trader to search for whatever you are looking for.

Speaking of search, one service that Google is very proud of is Google SMS Tips. This is a service that lets phone users experience something very similar to searching the web – only that he does this via SMS on his mobile phone. Or as Joe Mucheru puts it, Google SMS Tips is “an SMS-based query-and-answer service that enables a mobile phone user to have a web search-like experience. You enter a free form text query, and Google's algorithms restructure the query to identify keywords, search a database to identify relevant answers, and return the most relevant answer.”

There are a few drawbacks though, determined by the fact that SMS is a rather limited medium of communication. In Google SMS Tips’ case, these limitations mean that an SMS cannot exceed 160 characters. On top of that, you will receive just one search result per query; quite different from a regular web experience where you get quite a lot of results.

There are some technical challenges as well. Like for example when an African user texts the word “HIV” and expects Google SMS Tips to provide a relevant search result. The result must be pertinent and to the point (it must not be longer than 160 characters, the maximum amount of character 1 SMS supports) but since it is quite an ambiguous search, it is a challenge to realize what the user asked for. Does he want to know how to prevent the disease, what causes it, how it spreads, how to treat it? Delivering the best search result is a must, if you keep in mind that the user has to pay for each SMS.

Fiona Lee, Africa Project Manager, comments: “These are the sorts of technical challenges that have surfaced in developing SMS Tips, so please don't view it as a finished product. We need to greatly improve search quality and add to the content that we have in the Health and Ag focus areas. Now that Google SMS is live, we're working on improving search quality and the breadth, and depth, of content. As for Tips, we will work to add more focus areas.”

Additional details on Google SMS are available on the official web page here.

Google Trader in action

Google SMS Tips in action

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