Google Home’s Secret Weakness: the Word ‘Google’

A Google Home device waits … listening … Photo: Google

At this point, early in their technological life cycles, it’s not surprising that voice-activated assistants like Amazon’s Alexa speaker and the Google Home need some work. So what if they can’t always quite understand what you’re saying? These devices are powered by complex algorithms that process natural language in audio form; they’ll get better as they crunch more numbers and utilize their “neural networks” and “deep machine learning” to figure out precisely what users are requesting. That makes sense to me. I can understand a bit of jankiness for this technology in its early stages. But the Google Home has an Achilles’ heel, an unforced error in design that sets it behind Amazon’s Alexa in terms of user experience: It has a terrible activation phrase.

Alexa and Google Home use always-on microphones to monitor what you have to say. When the user says a specific phrase, that’s when the device perks up and starts processing what it hears in order to generate a response, sending the audio to a remote server. On Amazon’s device, the activation phrase is just “Alexa” by default, and it can be customized. On Google Home, it’s “Okay, Google,” (or alternatively, “Hey, Google”).

You need to say these phrases every time you want to talk to your digital buddy. When you have to repeat them over and over again articulately, it becomes clear that “Okay, Google” and “Hey, Google” are cumbersome phrases — a mishmash of vowels and consonants that is tough to say without mumbling. I opt for “Hey, Google” (it has one less syllable), but even that phrase can’t escape the fact that “Google” is an annoying word to say. When yelling at the speaker to shut off an alarm in the morning, it often comes out as a mumbly “‘ey goo-uh” on first attempt. Have you ever really focused on saying “Google” clearly? It’s an unwieldy lexical concoction.

That Google would rely on its company name as an activation phrase is understandable (and unlike Amazon, it’s avoided a stereotypically female name), but Google was also founded as a web company whose name you had to type into a text field, not one to be repeated out loud, repeatedly. Google was not a name chosen for the way it sounded out loud.

Yet the required use of the word “Google” continues to be a stumbling block. Every time I activate my Google Home, I now feel like I’m consciously getting my mouth ready to make an unnatural maneuver.

Why exactly is “Okay, Google” a hassle? Brendan Houdek, a speech-language pathologist and a speech coach at New York Speech Coaching, explained that it has to do with the schwa — the unstressed syllable created by the second half of the name. If you were to separate the word into its phonetic components, you would get “goog” and “le.” He suggested that “because there’s not a true vowel separating the first and second syllables, that might make it feel like you’re tripping over it, might make it feel like you’re mumbling it.”

It’s not like we don’t say the word “Google” all the time, but when trying to get the word recognized by a burgeoning type of speech-recognition technology, it feels important to articulate it well. “Specifically, with the phrase ‘okay, Google,’ you’re having essentially the same consonant sounds being repeated. So you obviously have the two ‘guh’ sounds in ‘Google’ but also with ‘k-’ in ‘okay,’” Houdek says, “‘k-’ and ‘guh’ are essentially the same sounds. The tongue and everything inside the mouth is doing all the same work.”

“The difference,” he said, “is that in the ‘k’ sounds we don’t use our vocal cords, whereas in the ‘g’ we do. But essentially you have three of the same sounds in a row.” In other words, whenever you say, “Okay, Google,” the mouth has to perform the same movement three times in rapid succession.

Google is starting to open up its Home platform to developers, and, with any luck, we might soon be able to trigger the device with a different word. But for now, we’re stuck with “Google,” a funny name that’s a pain in the butt to actually say. A Google spokesperson said that the company had strived for an activation phrase that was universal and worked across languages and accents, and that they were taking feedback. For now, “Hey, Google” is better than its “Okay” counterpart, but the company’s name itself is proving to be an issue, one that lies at the heart of the technology, a local problem that can’t be fixed by the cloud.

Google Home’s Secret Weakness: the Word ‘Google’