Part Wikipedia, part Yahoo Answers and part About.com, ChaCha is a new search engine with a compelling hook – real-time results from human beings. The site launches (in "Alpha") today and offers users two ways to search: traditional algorithmic results or help from live "guides." Users interact with guides via an embedded instant messaging window in the search results page.
Brad Bostic, co-founder of ChaCha, said that the site had lined up about 2500 guides at launch: college students, retirees, stay-at-home moms and others "who are online all day anyway." But not just anyone can become a guide apparently; you have to be "sponsored" (invited by an existing guide) and work your way up a hierarchy consisting of four levels.
New guides are considered "apprentices" and are matched with areas of personal interest and expertise. New guides also have mentors, more experienced guides who monitor their work. Apprentices cannot interact with the public initially and must pass several tests for speed, quality and accuracy. If they meet these requirements they become "pros."
Pros then get the chance to interact with the public and will be paid (US$5 per "search hour"). After pro come two other levels: "master" and ultimately "elite." Elite-level guides make US$10 per search hour. But once you become a master you're eligible to earn 10% of what your "network" makes. Your network consists of those you've brought into the "ChaCha Underground" (the community of guides).
The challenges of this entire concept obviously revolve around the cost structure and how many guides ChaCha can recruit to make the real-time aspect of this work well. It was clear from my conversation with Bostic, however, that ChaCha has carefully thought through these issues. The company has developed financial and ego-based incentives to recruit and retain guides and various mechanisms to help maximize the quality of their results.
While Bostic believes that most people will get and stay involved because of altruistic reasons (think Wikipedia), the modest financial rewards and four levels of "initiation" (my term) may add additional appeal for prospective guides. As mentioned, there's also a community aspect. Guides have profiles, featuring their areas of expertise and most recent answers. They're also rated by users.
The site is ad supported and already has a number of display advertisers as well as sponsored links. The key will be to keep the ad revenues climbing higher than the contractor fees. But Bostic assured me that ChaCha had crunched theses numbers many times. (This ChaCha Underground, if it grows, becomes another social network and advertising vehicle in itself.)
Like most new site launches of late, the first few days are likely to be shaky. I performed a number of searches with very mixed results. I had trouble getting algorithmic results several times and was only able to connect with a guide once. This was disappointing but probably due to last-minute engineering issues and fine tuning before launch.
The following is a verbatim IM transcript from my single interaction with a guide (a male who's name I've replaced with "guide"). My query was "Best LA hotel to stay in with kids?"
Guide: Welcome to ChaCha! Please wait a moment while I search for your results.
Guide: Please hold a moment.
Guide: I will find a good result for you.
You: still looking?
Guide: I appreciate your patience while I find exactly what you need.
Guide: I am looking for details on kid-friendly hotels.
Guide: I have found several but will soon have one that is well-suited for your search.
Guide: Do you want 5, 4, or 3 stars?
Guide: hotel rating that is.
You: how about most stars for under $200 per night
Guide: OK - one moment.
Guide: how many beds?
Guide: Kids stay free at these.
You: okay, thanks
Guide: Let me check on the rates.
Guide: The nice thing is that these both have full suites.
Guide: So if you are with kids, you have refridge, etc...
Guide: Is that good for you?
The entire interaction and elapsed time of the search was a little over three minutes. (Users will also automatically be offered algorithmic results while the guide is searching.) The results he ultimately sent were two hotels from an aggregator site. In fairness this is a difficult query to answer effectively in a short time frame. The guide doesn't know my personal preferences and he didn't ask where in Los Angeles I wanted to stay. But I did get two reasonable results.
The promise of people answering search queries will likely bring out qualitative and opinion-based questions, which is also what's going on over at Yahoo Answers. Fewer fact-based queries will likely be directed at guides because they are easier for people to answer on their own through conventional search.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to connect more than once to check the performance of the guides on other types of queries. But on Friday when I was briefed by Bostic, he and I went through two successful sessions with guides in real time. One was fact based and one opinion oriented.
Social search engines, which have been proliferating, are trying to leverage human expertise to offer a more relevant index or qualitatively better search experience. Chris Sherman recently wrote "Who's Who in Social Search," which provides an overview of the different categories and different companies in the space. In many ways, however, ChaCha's concept of guides providing real-time answers is the ultimate expression of social search.
One of the challenges that MSN Search has faced since it launched is that it's not obviously different or better than Google or Yahoo and thus it has struggled to gain market share. My belief is that people have search habits that are well established at this point and getting them to change is harder than most people believe.
But ChaCha does have an obvious differentiator in the form of its live guides. Many people will immediately like this concept and the experience of interacting with a person in conducting online research. But as Bostic said to me, "The Devil is in the details." Indeed, the actual performance of the guides and the quality of the ChaCha search experience as a whole will determine adoption or its opposite.
Because of the network of human guides, ChaCha is not easily or quickly duplicated by others, including the major engines. But they will be watching to see how ChaCha performs and how people respond.
ChaCha will not rise up and supplant market leaders any time soon. Yet if the site can recruit enough guides and make the live search experience fast and effective it will gain adoption. But the ultimate test will probably be determined not by any rational comparison of search results but by something more intangible: whether users think that ChaCha's live guides will do better than they can by themselves.