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Summary:

Can you build a better search engine than Google? Lots of companies want to. But search already works pretty well — pretty well, that is, if you’re sitting at your computer. If you’re on the go with just a phone, it’s not quite so easy to […]

ChaCha logoCan you build a better search engine than Google? Lots of companies want to. But search already works pretty well — pretty well, that is, if you’re sitting at your computer. If you’re on the go with just a phone, it’s not quite so easy to get the information you need.

That’s because effective searching often involves orienteering — finding information step-by-step, and using local context at each step as a guide. Orienteering-style search on a mobile phone, however, is next to impossible. Startup ChaCha is looking to change that with textChaCha, a human-managed search available via text messaging from your mobile phone.

ChaCha’s mobile search is built upon their basic human-guided search, which has met with widespread skepticism due to underqualified human guides, pranksters using the service, and questions about whether anyone really needs a hand with searching. President and co-founder Brad Bostic admits that the initial set of guides ChaCha recruited didn’t always do a good job with guided web search. Now, he says, the company has put in place training procedures and understands better what sort of people might succeed as a search guide.

More importantly, however, ChaCha’s mobile search looks more promising because it addresses the fundamental difficulty of search-on-the-go: distilling an entire search experience into one good answer. And that’s something better done by a human who can engage in orienteering.

To use textChaCha, just text your question to short code 242242 (that spells “chacha” on most phones). Your question will be routed to a ChaCha guide who will provide an answer within minutes, as well as a link to more in-depth results that you can browse later.

Given that you don’t have to use specific keywords — you just ask your question using whatever text abbreviations and natural language you want — and you don’t have to use different services, textChaCha could eliminate the need to use a variety of other mobile information services.

ChaCha is one of a number of search startups looking for the right mix of human brainpower and computer algorithms to help people find what they’re looking for online. The startup that got the most buzz in 2007 was Jason Calacanis’ human-powered search engine Mahalo, even though it has appeared, to some, to be little more than a rehash of past attempts at creating web directories using people.

Like Mahalo, ChaCha offers human-curated search results in their “instant search.” If you enter search terms into the search box on their web site, your results may include “cool, hard-to-find sites” picked by ChaCha’s experts.

But the more interesting (or perhaps more easily ridiculed) part of ChaCha is guided search, upon which textChaCha is based. ChaCha has recruited thousands of guides who are provided with a toolset for helping ChaCha searchers find just the information they need. From your computer, you can search with a guide who chats with you about what you’re looking for and provides results; the guide then fine-tunes them based on your feedback.

ChaCha has won ample funding. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was the lead investor in the first $6 million round, and most recently, ChaCha took an $8 million equity investment and received a $2 million grant from the state of Indiana, where the company is headquartered.

Bostic wants to get the service offered as an add-on to cell-phone plans. This could be a way of reaching a target market that doesn’t want to learn, for example, Google SMS search keywords and yet wants the benefit of online information while on the go.

ChaCha, by providing orienteering-by-proxy that users need for mobile search, may have come up with a winning dance.

By Anne Zelenka

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  1. Thanks for the interesting info. It sure beats browsing around. Press this press that. One question text, immediate answer in minutes. Thanks for this info.

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  2. Lets say the idea takes off because of their ease of use. One can text in any question, from a directory-style inquiry to ones seeking information, rather than scrolling through mobile web pages on a tiny screen.

    But the big question of course, is what happens to them when the mobile web browsing experience improves? I don’t mind getting paid for my searches, but I certainly don’t want to pay for my searches. This company won’t last long I guess.

    Parul
    http://www.bhopu.com

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  3. Parul: I believe you missed the point of the PR and the article mentioned above…. The intent of the service is not to put in a search request, but to put in a question and receive the precise answer…. Granted, the web browsing experience on mobile devices will improve exponentially over the coming months and years, but you’d still need to perform a search and filter all the information you receive in response… I think the true power of this service is quickly obtaining THE precise information you need without the task of performing a search yourself….

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  4. how could this scales to millions (if not billions) of queries a day? unless, of course, the strategy is to build the knowledge base of the top questions while answering the queries manually, and then build out a robot to answer the ‘head’ queries reliably. (what ask was trying to do when it was askjeeves).

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  5. There’s already a service like this with a much better community element to it called Mosio. Same idea, but seems more fun (you can see what other people’s questions and answers are).

    @spandana- i think chacha could work but they’d better get ready to burn through those millions on $5/hr college students to be truly scalable.

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  6. RE: ” effective searching often involves orienteering”

    According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary the definition of “orienteering” is:

    Main Entry: ori·en·teer·ing
    Pronunciation: ˌȯr-ē-ən-ˈtir-iŋ, -ˌen-
    Function: noun
    Etymology: modification of Swedish orientering, from orientera to orient
    Date: 1948
    a cross-country race in which each participant uses a map and compass to navigate between checkpoints along an unfamiliar course

    See: http://www.orienteering.org/

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  7. Another over-funded, soon-to-be failure that never visited ECON 101.

    1) Scalability. How the hell will this ever scale to being something that meaningfully fields thousands of queries each minute?

    2) PROFITABILITY. Where’s the money??????? They’re obviously bleeding cash now, because a business model is non-existent. If the pie-in-the-sky anticipation is that they’ll eventually monetize this via user subscriptions (which is presumably adequate to support the massive overhead), they’re smoking something that I am in desperate need of.

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  8. I have to admit that I was skeptical at first with their idea, too (We recently reviewed their service, too – http://wapswap.com/blog/) Once you actually start using their service, not only does it beat fumbling around on the web (even on a regular PC), it’s quite addicting. At dinner the other nite we were playing Try-To-Stump-The-ChaCha-Guide, it was quite amusing.

    Of course, the bottom line is money, and I am curious as to how much their subscription service will cost once it is out of beta.

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  9. Well for those curious Cha Cha is already fielding 1000′s of questions, and the intent at this time is not to become a pay by use service, let’s see how well the service manages to keep up!

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