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Anita Bora | August 02, 2003 11:22 IST

The popular search engine throws a wrong 'un at India

Indian surfers logging into Google over the last couple of days have been taken by surprise, not entirely pleasant. Google replaced its familiar page with an Indian version where you can read the navigation in a clutch of Indian languages. Surprisingly, this has miffed many users.


Sameer G, a programmer from Mumbai, noticed that Google was sending him to an India page (read Hindi) on July 31 and says: "I know Google has its user interface in many different languages. But, I had no clue why it took me there by default."


UPDATE: After experimenting with a default page in Hindi for Indian surfers, Google has now reverted to an English page with options to go to Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi and Tamil versions

For Kiruba Shankar, a technical communications professional from Chennai, it was an email from the Google PR Manager Debbie Frost that made him check out the new site. He comments on Google's latest move: "Not useful. But technically brilliant."


According to George Vivek Durai, a Mumbai lawyer specialising in telecom and technology issues, Google had tried re-directing before and abandoned it. "It's been re-introduced this time after they finally localised significant aspects of the language engine."


For people like Suresh Ramasubramanian, postmaster and abuse desk manager at OutBlaze, the India page has not made a very good impression. "There is an option where we can revert to English or try two or three other Indian languages but I don't like it very much," he says.


In the meanwhile a controversy of sorts is brewing over the fact that Google India serves a Hindi version of the page by default. Many feel that Hindi is not a majority language for Indian Web users.


Suresh points out that a) most of India's online population is English literate, b) Hindi is not a language that's spoken by a huge number of Indians and c) several people prefer English on the whole. "No. It's not a very good move on Google's part."


Durai too doesn't feel it's a well thought out move. "Unlike other parts of the world, Hindi is not the dominant language for Indians on the Web. However, it does revert to English once you've chosen the English page but that's probably a cookie-based feature. In any event, changing default settings instead of providing an option seems very unwise."


"They're trying to reach out to more and more people who may not be comfortable in English and feel more at ease using Google in their mother tongue," guesses Sameer. "There is absolutely no difference in what lies beneath the hood. It's just the user interface that changes."


Kiruba feels that Google is doing the right thing, especially if they want to use this technique to get more Indians aware of this new development. "It's a brilliant idea that everyone should know about. Had they kept an English page and added a small link to the Hindi page not many would have noticed it." He likens the new method to "stuffing it in your face… effective, but not likeable".


Abhijit Gadgil, who works with a telecom equipment startup in Mumbai, says that Hindi is the language of the majority: "To which other place should it go? Do you expect Google to find the name of the surfer, deduce his mother tongue and redirect him to the relevant language page? That is too much too ask. But who knows, maybe Google might actually do it someday!"


"Besides Google, is not a place to fight over the Dravid-Aryan divide," Abhijit adds on a humourous note.

Noida-based computer professional Anubhav Srivastav, who uses the Google Toolbar, was unaware of the changes on the Google India homepage till some colleagues pointed it out. He is proud to be using the Hindi page rather than the English one. "It's good. I have been to countries like Korea where native language is used more than English. Since then, I have wished to see that happen to Hindi. The recognition of our own mother tongue is long overdue. I would love to see lot of mass market content in Hindi in the near future. Google is the first attempt in the right direction towards the acceptance of such interfaces at a mass level."

Excitement is important for this kind of an approach. Anubhav explains: "There are Hindi portals but having used them I think English content is better. However, with Google, no such partiality is expected." Anubhav predicts that due to this Hindi interface the popularity of Hindi sites will increase.


Says Sameer: "It's a great way for Google to widen its user base. But then, I personally would have preferred to be taken to the English page and then given a choice to either stay with English or move over to a language edition."

"I think Google has lots of interesting ideas, but it would be nice if they gave consumers a bit of choice when there are such ticklish issues as languages to deal with," says Vikram Crishna, a well-known figure in the Indian information technology and management scene.


"Internationalisation and localisation of the Google interface is a good thing. Only, this automatic assumption that all Indians speak Hindi is what I and many others are questioning," says Suresh.


Google's India page has five language options: Hindi, Telugu, Marathi, Bengali and Angrezi.


"I couldn't read the Hindi/Marathi/Telugu/Bengali pages on my IE5 on Windows, however, I could read it in Opera 6.0 on Redhat 8.0," observes Abhijit. "I tried the Marathi pages and the interface is quite good but not very user-friendly. But Google will improve over time."

Mayuresh Kathe, a computer professional from Mumbai adds: "I found the initiative interesting as it didn't require me to download any fonts, and it even worked on my Unix workstation running Mozilla 0.9 (which incidentally is an archaic version of that browser)."

Abhijit, however, doubts the usefulness of these features and reasons, "For most of the Indians, the search results are in English and I wonder how much more effective it is than Google." Suresh adds: "If someone prefers their native language and is more comfortable in it, sure, they'll love it."


Adds Durai: "I'm not very good with other languages. One observation is that a link to 'Angrezi' in Roman script doesn't make sense! Also, Tamil is a very important language since a large number of programmers from India as well as the diaspora happen to be Tamilians."


Kiruba did an ego search in 'search India pages' and found that the results were more relevant. He will not be using language-based search though. "Even if I were a Bengali I doubt if I would really use the Bengali search. If they soon launched a Tamil version, I'm dead sure that I will not use it in my search."


If Google wants the users to be able to customise their interface, Sameer suggests that instead of taking the users directly to a language page they should take them to the regular English page and have a customised link to the respective language page, giving the users a choice.


Durai feels that keeping the option to switch to a vernacular should be very helpful in the years to come when connectivity improves and a larger number of non-English speaking Indians get online. "Add text-to-speech to it on a handheld and you have a very good application for Simputer-type handhelds," he adds.


Whether Google will succeed with its language editions might not be immediately apparent, but the search engine continues to remain a favourite with many. As Kiruba voices: "I've seen many Google bashing reports. Nevertheless, it's a tremendous task getting such localising and customising done to this level by sitting in the USA. And to think most of this work is done by volunteers is really commendable. Way to go Google. I'm all for you."


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