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Before smartphones, an army of real people helped you find things on Google

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Before smartphones, an army of real people helped you find things on Google

The Eiffel Tower is 330 meters high and the closest pizzeria is 2 kilometers from my house. These facts were surprisingly easy to determine. All I had to do was type a few words into Google and I didn’t even have to spell them right.

For the vast majority of human history, that’s not how people discover things. They went to the library, asked a priest or wandered the streets following the aroma of pepperoni. But then, during a brief period when search engines existed but were too expensive to use on a shiny new phone, people could call or text a stranger and ask them anything.

The Internet was first available on cell phones in 1996, but before affordable data plans, accidentally clicking the browser icon on your flip phone would make you sweat. In the early 2000s, accessing a single website could cost you as much as a cheeseburger, which is why not many people bothered to Google it while traveling.

Instead, a variety of services emerged that offered mobile search without the Internet. Between 2007 and 2010, Americans could call GOOG-411 to find local businesses, and between 2006 and 2016, they could text 242-242 to have any questions answered by the ChaCha company. Brits can call 118 118 or text AQA to 63336 for similar services. Behind the scenes, there were no artificially intelligent robots answering these questions. Instead, thousands of people were once employed to be Google.

“A guy rang up and asked if Guinness was made in Ireland, people were asking about the circumference of the world,” says Hayley Banfield, a 42-year-old Welshwoman who answered 118,118 calls between 2004 and 2005. The number was the first. launched in 2002 as a directory inquiry service, meaning people could call to find out phone numbers and addresses (back then, calls cost an average of 55 pence). In 2008, the company began to offer a response any questions. Although Banfield worked for 118 118 before this change, customers asked him anything anyway. “We had random questions like ‘How many yellow cars are there on the road?'”

While directory inquiry lines still exist, Banfield worked during its heyday (answering hundreds of calls during his 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. shifts) and quickly noticed patterns in people’s queries. “After 11 p.m., that’s when the drunk calls came in,” he says. People wanted taxis and kebab shops, but they were so drunk they forgot to finish their sentences. Sometimes, callers found Banfield so helpful that she would invite her to accompany them on her nights out. As the night wore on, callers asked about massage parlors or saunas; then they would call back angrily after Banfield recommended an establishment she didn’t know your needs.

“Pizza hours” were 8 pm to 10 pm; everyone wanted the number of their local takeaway. Banfield had a computer in front of him in the Cardiff call centre, loaded with a simple database. He would type in a postcode (he had memorized all of the UK ones as part of his training) and then use a shortcut like “PIZ” for pizza or “TAX” for taxi. Sometimes people accused Banfield of being psychic, but if the power had gone out in a certain area, she automatically knew that most callers wanted to know why.

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