Yahoo teams with Vlingo to offer voice search

UpdatedWith just-announced improvements to its mobile service, Yahoo oneSearch gives customers the ability to search the web by simply speaking into their phones. To make this happen, Yahoo is partnering with startup Vlingo and has led Vlingo’s $20 million second round of funding.

Yahoo isn’t the only big tech company to set its sights on the voice market. Google, for example, may be in talks to acquire internet phone company Skype. (Ebay acquired Skype at the end of 2005 but hasn’t been happy with its financial performance.) A year ago, Microsoft acquired voice technology company TellMe, whose services include voice search. And a number of other startups offer voice search, including Promptu and V-Enable. (Read our coverage of Promptu.)

[Update: V-Enable also had a big announcement today: It's partnering with mobile nightlife directory buzzd, which plans to use V-Enable's Mobile411 search tool to help users search its site. ]

Voice search technology is still improving, but we were pretty impressed when we covered Vlingo last year. The Cambridge, Mass.-based startup uses each query to refine its service — as more people use it, the technology should become better and better at interpreting accents and phrases.

Yahoo will be adding other oneSearch features too, said Yahoo Vice President Marco Boerries at this week’s CTIA Wireless trade show in Las Vegas. The focus will be on “instant answers to any query,” not just links to different sites, he said.

I’m hoping to speak to Vlingo chief executive Dave Grannan later today to find out more about how Yahoo’s voice search compares to the competition. Vlingo previously raised $6.5 million from Charles River Ventures and Sigma Partners, who also participated in the new round.

[Update: I just got off the phone with Grannan, and he told me Vlingo won the deal with Yahoo in "a bake off with other speech tech players" last fall.

Vlingo stands out because it has the most unconstrained speech recognition technology around, he said. For example, using TellMe is similar to most customer-service voice systems: Rather than making a general query, you have to navigate through several menus to find what you want. ("What city did you want to search?", then "What business are you looking for?", etc.)

On Vlingo, however, you can say anything you want: You can say a flight number to learn its status, or you can ask, "Where's the best place to play craps in Las Vegas?"

Grannan said he plans to use the new funding to expand into international markets, which means offering Vlingo in foreign languages (including "UK English"), as well as hiring more sales and marketing staff. Vlingo's expansion may be a little limited, because the deal forbids the startup from providing its voice technology to Yahoo's mobile search competitors. But Grannan noted that Yahoo agreed to a similar exclusivity: It won't use anyone else's voice technology, either.

"In the balance of power, that worked in our favor," Grannan said.]