Bangalore: Four Interactive Pvt. Ltd, which runs online local search portal, now has an offline extension—agents assisting callers who seek information on restaurants, shopping malls and the like.

The phone-assisted service began a pilot programme on Thursday in Bangalore, where the local search firm is based, that will eventually expand to the 13 cities it covers now.

Accessible information: Four Interactive co-founder Kiran Konduri.

“People in large corporations are comfortable looking online (for information), but our enquiries on the phone were from small and medium enterprises," said Bikky Khosla, chief executive of Infocom Network. “By going through the phone, we also are trying to reach a bigger audience."

In December, Internet firm Yahoo Inc., bought a 30% stake, for an undisclosed sum, in Chennai’s Info Network Management Co. Pvt. Ltd, which runs a phone-based directory enquiry service aimed at allowing the company to offer integrated phone and online local search services.

While some firms use agents, others such as Google Inc., offer voice-based search through an automated response system.

“It is very hard to build a virtual business in India," said Kiran Konduri, co-founder of Four Interactive. “Mobile is the largest (opportunity) in the country, (but) it is not getting to the potential." The firm will have 23 people round the clock answering about 2,500 calls from customers. Asklaila currently has search options via website, mobile Web, text message and digital satellite television and the phone-in service is an extension to expand the market, Konduri said.

Analysts say factors such as India’s low Internet penetration, cultural differences and the access that’s provided through knowing the local language, makes such firms to offer an off-line option.

“Not all online users are comfortable with all the online methods. Even now, there are a large number of cases when a call is made even when you are booking tickets," said Diptarup Chakraborti, analyst at technology researcher Gartner Inc. “Cultural issues are still there, and the Internet in India is largely an English medium."

India has between 34 million and 50 million Internet users, according to various estimates. On 16 November, Internet market research firm comScore Inc. said the country had 35.8 million Internet users as of September, but did not count the users who access the Internet from cyber cafes.

Just Dial Pvt. Ltd, which runs a phone-based service offering business information to consumers, has successfully travelled in the opposite direction, having seen its online service grow larger since putting the database on the Internet two years ago.

“Today, there is more traffic online with 250,000 visitors, while we get around 200,000 callers," said V.S.S. Mani, founder and MD of Just Dial. “The future is definitely Web. But yes, there could be a hybrid, multi-platform text search."

Google, which has a voice-activated search that can be used on mobile and fixed phones in India, says that it will continue to follow the automated route.

“For us, what we don’t want to do is be in the call centre business. That is not the Google model. (In that case) we can’t scale without adding people. If they (users) want to call and ask, let them make voice a modality as opposed to a call centre thing, where you need people on the other side," said Vinay Goel, head of products at Google India.