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September 5, 2006

Searching with ChaCha? Take a number

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Hire human editors to provide users with quick, relevant search results in real-time? It’s the kind of innovative idea that will either turn ChaCha into the next YouTube or land it besides the other promising, yet failed, start-ups in the web’s recycling bin.

ChaCha is a traditional search engine with a social search twist. Users have the option of searching traditionally (aka algorithmically) or with the help of “live guides” who will help them refine their search through an embedded chat screen.

At launch, 2,500 guides composed of college students, retirees and stay-at-home moms “who are online all day anyway” (smack!) have been enlisted to be the face behind your search. Guides come in four flavors levels — apprentice, pro, master and elite – and are paid between $5 and $10 an hour to turn around targeted results for searchers.

Is this social search’s next step?

The service is still in the experimental phase, (in fact, at writing trying to access the site brings up a maintenance page), but it’s garnered a lot of attention for its unique way of doing things.

What’s unique about ChaCha is that it ultimately allows users to search differently based on what they’re looking for. If you’re looking for answer to factual questions, searching algorithmically will serve your purpose; however, if you’re searching for something more subjective, it may be interesting to see how human editors approach your queries.

But of course, it also raises a lot of questions. What kind of biases will this introduce? How experienced are ChaCha’s guides on different topics? Will searchers appreciate or fear having someone on the other end of their searches? Will Billy the college student or Norma the stay-at-home mom view results the same way as I would? All of that remains to be seen.

I see the underlying value of a service like ChaCha, but I wonder how successful the service will actually be. To me, its main obstacle will be speed. Users are not use to (or accepting of) wait times. I’d rather perform five queries on Google trying to refine my search then stare at a white ChaCha screen waiting for a list of answers to appear or to chat with a guide. Searching has always been a solo activity for me and I’ve never had a desire to change that. Plus, waiting for pages to load kills brain cells.

Even beyond that, if I was interested in waiting for someone to find me an answer, I wouldn’t be using a search engine. I’d be using one of the community answer sites. Search is for instant information and research, when did someone’s own opinion get added to the mix? Unless ChaCha is going to be hiring industry experts (and at $10 an hour that’s doubtful), getting an opinion from a search engine seems out of place.

At launch, ChaCha has been labeled “the 411 of the Web”. Personally, I think with that title ChaCha is dead in the water. In order to be successful, ChaCha needs to become a Digg member’s Google. That’s where its power ultimately lies. It needs to become the search engine where “people like you” are the showing you the sites that are most releveant to you.

I’m very interested to see the type of results I get from ChaCha, but unfortunately I’ve been staring at my loading ChaCha screen now for more than three minutes with no answers in sight.

I won’t give the folks at ChaCha a hard time over the painful wait times (yet). The service is in a very well-published Alpha phase and glitches are par for the course, but it’s not helping me get to know their service either.

Overall, I’m a fan of the approach, but its effectiveness remains to be seen. I’d love for there to be a human-based search that can compete with the big dogs; I just don’t see it happening. A human search engine will never have the speed of an algorithm, and on the Web, speed is half the battle.

Keep an eye on this one though. It’ll be very interesting to see whether or not users will get behind this one or if we’ll see its remnants being sold on eBay. I think if ChaCha can form the kind of fan base that Digg or Yahoo! Answers has, there’s a lot of reasons to expect big things. However, if speed and trust get in its way, it’s off to the Web 2.0 graveyard for this start-up.

(via SEW)





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