Google kills text-message search; do I still have options?

(I knew there was a reason why I kept this blog around. So I haven’t kept it up for a while, but tech stuff still happens and I still have opinions about most of it. This seems to be a good enough topic to resurrect this blog on.)

texting

Who would have thought text messaging was, like, so last year?

While I’ve been crying in my coffee over Google’s decision to get rid of its Reader RSS service, another service was shut down. Very quietly, too.

Google SMS went toes up last month, with very little warning. And although I used the service quite a bit, I didn’t really notice it until now.

Google SMS allows you to send a text message to Google for any number of things, and within minutes you’d get a text message back with the answer.

In truth, I don’t use the service nearly as much as I used to. It’s handy, though.

For a long time, all I had to do to get the weather forecast was to text Google’s text-message number, 466453, and enter my search parameters.

Let’s say you wanted the weather forecast. Key in “weather 29406” — or whatever your Zip code is to get the forecast for the next few days. Within minutes it would come back, and you’d know whether to cancel that picnic.

That’s the service that felt the nip of the executioner’s ax. Suddenly. Quietly. Not even a whimper. Google-watchers were so busy with Reader that they didn’t notice anything else.

It’s really understandable. It seems smartphones are taking over the world; in fact they’re now outselling the old-school talk-and-text phones. Why continue a service that is on its way out?

Except SMS search still has its place.

I use a smartphone. I love it. Great toy, and I get a lot of work done through it. I also can find any number of distractions through it. But I find it’s really faster to get the weather through text message even though my Android phone has an app that takes me right to Google Weather.

Hey, faster is important. At least for me. But then I’m one of those guys who keeps pushing the elevator button to get it to me faster. That does work, doesn’t it? Maybe not. After a while I decide taking the stairs is faster, so I’ll do that.

My hiking buddy Derek is old school when it comes to phones. He admits he’s not tech savvy at all. He has one of those feature phones (what we call a dumbphone) and it serves him well. He’s a text-message monster, and his phone takes good photos, so that’s all he needs.

Full disclosure: Although I like my smartphone, I’m seriously considering shutting it down and using it as a wifi-only system. The reason is that, while it’s great for composing short blog posts and a few other things, it’s a crappy phone. For unlimited wireless Internet Sprint is the only game in town, but its signal strength can’t touch the Verizons of this world. I also find I have trouble hearing the other person on a smartphone; what I usually do is plug in my headphones or other outside speakers and hold the phone like a radio mic.

I still have an old talk-and-text flip phone that I killed when trying to swim with it in my pocket, but I buried it in rice to dry it out and it works fine now. The flip phone makes a smaller package, actually feels like a phone, and works better for voice calls. I’m really thinking of switching my phone service to that.

It’d been a while since I used Google’s SMS service. According to my text log I tried to use it to get the weather on May 9 and didn’t get an answer. OK, I thought, the message got lost in the ether. Happened a lot with Google SMS, so I didn’t think any more of it. Instead, I started using the smartphone apps more to get the weather.

Turns out May 9 was the day Google shut that service down. But I didn’t know that yet.

Anyway, I tried again on June 11 and got the following message:

SMS search has been shutdown. You can continue to search the web at google.com on any device.

Yeah, duh, I know I can search for stuff on Google. Tell me something new.

But this “any device” statement is a crock. You can’t search Google on one of those old talk-and-text phones. I guess in Google’s mind those things don’t exist any more.

 Searching for alternatives

I used to be able to search Yahoo for the weather; in fact I wrote about it in an old post elsewhere. So how’s that one going?

The number is still there; 92466. So I tried that, using “weather 29406” again.

Then got the answer:

Unfortunately we were able to understand your request. Please try again.

Can’t understand? What part do they not understand? So I tried again:

So I tried “weather north charleston sc”

Unfortunately we were able to understand your request. Please try again.

I get it. Yahoo can’t understand my southern accent when I text. Of course this begs the question: Is Yahoo still relevant?

Hey, Google isn’t the only thing on the Internet. With that in mind, how about some of the other search engines?

I checked Bing, Microsoft’s effort to knock the wind out of Google’s sails. For an answer I went to the horse’s mouth, using the Bing search engine. It’s got nice graphics. But as far as SMS search, forget it.

Then there’s DuckDuckGo. It’s my go-to search engine; pretty much like Google used to be before it got too big for its britches. After some checking I haven’t come across any type of SMS search from there; too bad.

Veering away from the search engines, I checked out a few other possibilities.

I also tried ChaCha (242242), asked for “weather 29406 and waited. Then got my answer:

9230: Message sent using invalid number of digits. Please resend using 10 digit number or valid short code. Msg 2114.

So I tried dialing for “help,” following the instructions on ChaCha’s website. Message still invalid, so scratch that.

I also tried yp411, which is actually a yellow-pages site. No reason; just for grins. Didn’t get the weather, but I got addresses for the National Weather Service in the area. Gee, thanks a pantload.

Finding solutions

After a (Google) web search, paydirt. The best SMS search service I’ve been able to find is 4info.

Write this down: The phone/text number is 44636. That should be easy enough; that’s 4INFO on your keypad.

So I tried that. 44636. Then typed in my parameters: weather 29406. Got my answer in seconds:

  • Now 82F 89/76 Ptly Cloudy
  • W:93/79 Ptly Cloudy
  • Th:95/75 Ptly Cloudy
  • F:86/71 Scatt’d T-storms
  • Sa:85/72 Ptly Cloudy
  • Reply 1 for alerts

Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

I opted in on this. According to 4info, I’ll get daily weather alerts at 9 a.m. Pacific time. That’s noon in South Carolina, so this might be useless. By then I’ll already know the weather but the forecasts still might come in handy. OK, I’ll admit to being a weather-watcher. So sue me.

A couple of years ago I subscribed to the text-message service offered by the Weather Channel. Useful, but I got carpet-bombed with texts. I mean all day long. Annoyed me. After getting a gazillion texts telling me thunderstorms were expected (and there was a heavy one blowing up the neighborhood anyway), I cancelled it.

4info isn’t perfect, though. I tried “coffee 29406” because after all that research I really needed some, and got several responses. A Starbucks a couple of miles away (but not the one just down the street from me). And a plumbing company. I’m still scratching my head over that one. The only connection I can make is that coffee ends up joining the plumbing an hour or two after I drink it.

For “pizza 29406” I got a pizza place (of course) and that same plumbing outfit. For obvious reasons I’m leaving that one alone.

Despite its warts, 4info seems to be the best solution for finding things via text messages. I’m sure you’ll find some of your own alternatives; let me know.

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Talk to me: Do you still search the Web via text messages? Did you notice you can’t do that with Google anymore? Do you really care? What other options can you share? Leave a comment below.

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