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Who’s Who: ChaCha

Posted on 7.31.2008

Semantic search is often discussed in this industry as the next great search medium. It promises to make sense out of the way people speak and think to deliver more relevant results. But there’s an older brother to semantic search, one who is wiser and been around about 200,000 years longer. His name is Homo Sapien, or human.

Human-powered search is alive and well and has many supporters. In fact, human powered search service ChaCha.com already raised more than $20 million since its founding in January 2006 and is closing in on another round in the $20-$30 million range.

ChaCha started with a website and a desktop version as an experiment to gather data. But according to co-founder and President Brad Bostic, the mobile platform was the business model all along. In January 2008, ChaCha launched a text option, where a user can text any question to 242242 (ChaCha) and receive an answer, usually within five minutes. In April they launched a voice-based version, where you call 1-800-2Cha-Cha, ask your question then hang up. You get a text message confirming your question and within a few minutes receive another text message with your answer.

So far, ChaCha is seeing signs of success, with 100% growth month-over-month and now handling millions of requests per month. Of those that try the service, 23 percent become repeat users — returning to the service within five days and making requests about 25 times per month, says Bostic.

In addition to requests for sports scores, weather and directory assistance, Bostic says that about 15-20 percent are of a transactional nature, finding a restaurant or information about purchasing something. “It starts out as a novel application, but typically over time they gravitate to more practical questions. Ultimately we see questions vary from fun and humor to something that really matters to make their day better — which is a beautiful thing about ChaCha. It's unbounded.”

To respond to user queries, ChaCha enlists about 15,000 independent contractors, or guides, throughout the United States, often segmented by geographic expertise and paid based on accurate answers. An algorithm is also employed, so questions that have previously been asked and accurately answered can be recycled.

Of course, we had to test it out for ourselves.

First the fun side: Who was the starting center for the 1974 Chicago Bears?
Rick Coady was the center for the Chicago Bears in 1974. He was drafted by the Bears in the 11th round (289th overall) in 1968.

And the practical side: What is the current commute time on Interstate 90 from O’Hare airport to downtown Chicago?
It is slow (20-30 mph) until the Edens Kennedy junction, then it is a parking lot. Take Rand to Northwest HWY, to Elston Ave.

Sending your question via text, you seem to get more accurate results. When using the voice application, you sometimes get answers based on a misinterpretation of your question. Ambient noise plays a factor, as well as pronunciation of certain words, street names, etc.

Therefore, the biggest challenge for ChaCha lies in its strength. With 15,000 guides you get a large network of so-called experts. But you also get errors. Some questions posed have received incorrect answers or, when asked twice, inconsistent answers. If you find an error and report it, you will receive an apology and a correct answer. However, if ChaCha can’t deliver accurate results consistently, the service will be viewed as little more than a way to settle bets at the local pub.

As far as a business application, right now Bostic sees ChaCha as a sort of virtual assistant. According to a ChaCha guide when asked about the average salary of a personal assistant: It depends on the industry, an assistant for the CEO or top corporate is over 60K on average while a typical salary is under 40K.

ChaCha is free for the consumer. Which begs the question, how does ChaCha make money? The desktop version of the site contains advertising, as do text messages. And Bostic says they are working towards transactional offers. For example, search a flight and a guide might ask if you would like to book travel. Ask about Seth Godin’s most recent book and get a link to immediate purchase. And there are discussions to include sponsored listings, although they will be clearly marked as to not interfere with a guide’s answer.

Overall, it’s fun and useful and looks to provide some real value. One of ChaCha’s biggest assets is that you don’t need to open a browser on your phone and navigate the Web. Also, because it’s accessible via text or voice, there is nothing to download and it works on virtually every phone, regardless of carrier.

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