BUSINESS

SEARCHING FOR HELP

New search engines have a secret weapon— real live human beings

NANCY MACDONALD October 9 2006
BUSINESS

SEARCHING FOR HELP

New search engines have a secret weapon— real live human beings

NANCY MACDONALD October 9 2006

SEARCHING FOR HELP

BUSINESS

New search engines have a secret weapon— real live human beings

NANCY MACDONALD

Google may have a stranglehold over the competition, but innovators aren’t bowing out of the race to find new and better ways to search the Web. At ChaCha.com (ready for prime time in January), human searchers provide real-time, one-on-one help—for free.

Half of all Internet searches fail to deliver the desired answer, according to ChaCha founder Scott Jones, who helped create digital voicemail as a 26-year-old, and later Gracenote, the popular music software. ChaCha, he says, is the Web version of 411.

After typing a query—“Where can I stay in Vancouver, B.C., with my dog, for under $200 per night?”—users are connected to a ChaCha guide. (The company is recruiting university students and stay-at-home parents, who will earn between US$5 and $10 an hour.) Guides will provide real-time answers via instant message. As with Google, Indianapolisbased ChaCha earns its revenue from targeted ads—mostly videos—that play as you await the result of your search.

It’s not the first search engine to harness people power. Public question-and-answer sites, like Google Answers, Ask.com, Wondir and Answerbag, are cropping up—and they’re increasingly popular. (Yahoo! Answers saw 14 million visitors in July, up from nine million in May.) Yet Jason Calacanis, general manager of Netscape.com, is skeptical: “If you can’t do something significantly better to Google’s search there really isn’t much of a point because people will not switch for something that is 10 to 20 per cent better.”

In the world of online search engines, Google is Goliath. “To compete, you’ve got to come at them in a unique way,” says Rob Enderle, of the Enderle Group in San José, Calif. The trick, according to analysts, will be recruiting enough guides to make ChaCha’s live search experience fast and effective. The company has already hired 7,000 and expects to have 50,000 guides by year-end. But demand will be there, if recent experience is any guide—an experimental form of ChaCha went live on Labour Day, and got more than one query per second— so much traffic, in fact, the site crashed. Maybe the Web was miffed at all the humans. Nl