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8/31/2006
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ChaCha.com Debuts Human-Driven Search Site

Can't find what you're looking for online? ChaCha.com will direct you to a guide who gets paid to get you a good answer.

The limits of artificial intelligence have prompted information companies to look beyond computers to human brainpower as a competitive edge. The latest effort to tap people power is ChaCha.com, a search engine launching in beta this week that, in addition to the standard algorithmic search box, includes an option to direct queries to human search guides.

Like all those competing with sites such as Ask.com, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, ChaCha.com CEO Scott Jones argues that there's much room for improvement in online search. Roughly half of all searches fail to deliver the desired results, he says. While such lackluster performance can be attributed to poorly posed questions, technology companies naturally prefer to refine search tools rather than educating the users to ask questions in a way that computers can better understand.

In ChaCha.com's case, building a better search engine means making search social. "What we realized is that social interaction changes the game," says Jones.

Jones—who previously co-founded voicemail company Boston Technology and Escient, which later became music database company Gracenote—describes ChaCha.com as a system where users will be connected to someone who has "domain-specific experience" with a query.

The system functions as on-demand Web-based chat. Guides field questions typed by users and return one or several answers in roughly 20 seconds, or less if the question has already been asked and answered previously. While the user waits, he or she has the privilege (or burden, depending on how you feel about commercials) of watching video ads.

At launch time, Jones expects his site to be staffed by several thousand guides who will rate each other's work through a gated online social network called the ChaCha Underground. He says the number of guides will grow as traffic does, adding that a 50-to-1 ratio of users to guides is enough to quickly respond to those who want human help when searching.

The ChaCha Underground is sort of a cross between MySpace.com and Wikipedia.org, with cash to sweeten the deal. "The foundation of this system is about community," says Brad Bostic, president of ChaCha.com. "As a guide I can be fulfilled by having my own profile, by showcasing what my level is in the system, by showcasing my previous search results. It will display who's in my network, who my sponsor is, what my favorite profiles are. It gives me a place to really be part of a community about knowledge sharing."

ChaCha plans to pay its guides by rank, based on the number of hours spent answering queries (time spent idle isn't paid). Yet it's not a professional salary. The ChaCha Underground has four ranks: apprentice (not paid until 10 queries have been successfully answered); pro ($5/hour); master ($5/hour); and elite (the top 20% of guides who'll earn $10/hour). Additionally, guides who sponsor others as guides earn 10% of what their sponsored network earns.

Bostic explains that the ChaCha Underground bridges the gap between computer intelligence and human intelligence. Dismissing related efforts like Yahoo Answers as "glorified message boards," he says, "it's tough to really know if you're going to get quality knowledge or not."

Even if, to some degree, quality knowledge is in the eye of the beholder, Bostic suggests that ChaCha will offer a greater quantity of information than other search engines. He says that ChaCha search guides will have access to data sources that can't be indexed by search engines. An example might be Web sites that rely on user input to dynamically generate data, like the library catalogs at The University of Cincinnati or The University of California, Berkeley. "The Googles of the world actually index a pretty small percentage of what's out there on the Internet," he says.

Whether or not ChaCha will be able to make more knowledge accessible, it may find fans among those overwhelmed by lengthy lists of search results, which Bostic characterizes as daunting for the average user.

Adding a guided search option to the traditional search experience "seems kind of simple on the surface," says Bostic, "but when you really think about the implications of the way we're implementing this, it's pretty profound what this can do to change the way people go about getting information."

Gartner analyst Allen Weiner says ChaCha.com represents a timely idea because authority and credibility aren't easy to come by in social search applications. Also, he says that that finding exactly what you're looking for in a complex search is problematic for many users. "It's a big idea," he says. "It has lots of moving parts and it's dependent on those moving parts all working properly."

If it works, Weiner wonders what kinds of questions ChaCha.com will answer better than, say, Google. "Is this something that works better for highly verticalized search," he muses, "for healthcare, travel, things like that?" For an answer to that question, we may just have to wait. In the meantime, feel free to watch the commercials.

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