When "human-powered" search engine ChaCha launched in September it was a great idea with very flawed execution. The site offers algorithmic search, but also IM-chat based search with actual people in real time. Here's my previous post on ChaCha. Today, the site has gone from "alpha" to "beta" based on lessons learned during the alpha period. And it appears from casual searching there have been some significant improvements.
According to the press release issued today, "Since launching the experimental Alpha version in September 2006, more than 14,000 people have entered the system to serve as ChaCha guides with as many as 1,500 guides being added on any given day. The fast-growing guide community has been instrumental in ChaCha's accelerated Beta development, as they have been working around the clock to help end users find information online."
I spoke to CEO Scott Jones late last week about the discoveries and improvements ChaCha had made during the past few months. He said he was surprised by the number of people using guide-based search. "I would have thought 95% would search without the guide, but it's been more like 40% using the guides."
Jones said that ChaCha's guides are drawn from three primary pools: retirees, college students and stay/work-at-home moms. "I thought our target market for guides was going to be college students, but the thing that took off was work-at-home moms."
Guides are qualified and paid according to an elaborate system. But Jones explained that guides have the capacity to make as much as $20,000 per year at the top end. But he also said that they've instituted strict controls to ensure quality and are working to get better and better guides into the system.
The guide-discovered search results are integrated into the algorithmic results and given priority in subsequent searches. I conducted four searches to test ChaCha in beta:
- Best Thai food in Los Angeles: ChaCha, Google, Yahoo
- How many smartphones will there be in 2010 in the US: ChaCha, Google, Yahoo
- Best non-toxic household cleaning products: ChaCha, Google, Yahoo
- Thanksgiving recipes: ChaCha, Google, Yahoo
These were all traditional searches without using the guides and the results were quite competitive I thought. The site was essentially not working in Firefox, but worked fine in IE. In a couple of cases I tried these same searches using guides but they were busy; however algorithmic results were provided. In one case I did have an interaction with a guide.
Here's the transcript in the context of a search for "Best non-toxic household cleaning products":
Status: Looking for a guide ...
Status: Connected to guide: melindam
melindam: Welcome to ChaCha!
You: Best non-toxic household cleaning products
melindam: Hi, how are you?
melindam: I'm sorry, it says you're searching for Thanksgiving recipes. Let me change that and I will look for you.
You: that was my previous search
melindam: No problem :-)
You: now I'm looking for something different
melindam: Ok, one moment please.
melindam: I appreciate your patience while I find exactly what you need.
melindam: Look at that one while I find more please. (Result found: mrsmeyers.com)
You: That's a commercial result
You: Mrs. Meyer's is a brand not an "objective" source
melindam: Ok. Are you wanting a personal opinion?
You: I'd like a reputable source that gives me a range of products and evaluates them, thanks.
melindam: You asked for non-toxic cleaning products. Are you looking for reviewes or products?
You: The word "best" implies an evaluation
melindam: Well the word best is subjective.
melindam: All companies say they have the best.
You: Now we're having a philosophical argument
You: "Best" can be subjective
You: but it can also be a judgment resulting from tests
You: or expert evaluation
melindam: Let me transfer you to someone who may be give you better results.
Transfer: You are being transfered to another guide who can help you search even better!
Looking for guide ...
I didn't pursue it with the second guide. While I was waiting and interacting with "melindam," there was video running in the upper right of the screen. This offers a brand advertising opportunity and takes some of the pain out of waiting for the human to conduct the search.
The guides represent both a burgeoning social network with its own possibilities and a word-of-mouth marketing force. These are two elements that suggest the site will develop some staying power and find a market.
Jones and I talked for awhile about brands and search and the role that brand plays in search loyalty. He told me that he spend considerable time thinking and working on the ChaCha brand, "Cha means search in Chinese, and it's a dance -- to achieve a search result."
What are the most popular searches on ChaCha?