Written by Alex Iskold and edited by Richard MacManus

Earlier this week Emre wrote a very informative and comprehensive overview of the Search space. Each of the profiled search engines has a unique approach. They deploy a range of sophisticated heuristics, clustering and machine techniques. In this article we look at ChaCha, a search engine which brings a fundamentally different kind of intelligence to the problem - human brain power.

The current implementation of ChaCha offers a combination of automation and people-powered search. The results can be organized by a vertical, like images or news. Also it has a set of related searches. But by far the most interesting and unusual aspect of ChaCha is its people-powered search.

ChaCha employs people to help users sift through the results. This is cleverly done using a familiar chat interface. When you first come to the site, you are presented with a standard search box. Type in a query and you get back a traditional list of matches. In the testing we did, we found both the performance and quality of the results to be quite good. 

But here's the kicker - if for some reason you are not happy with the quality of the results, you can request a chat session with a (human) Search Guide to help you find what you're looking for. The Guides get paid for this service - the one I spoke to told me she gets paid $5 per search hour, which is the level for Guides after they reach "pro level". She also said there are about 10,000 Guides in total, working from home.

Letting the search genie out of the bottle

(note: we grayed over the name of the ChaCha Guide, for privacy reasons)

Here is the transcript of a session. I searched for 'What is the population of China?' and then called up the search guide to help. For privacy, I have changed the name of the guide in the transcript to "Search Guide".

Status: Connected to guide...
Search Guide: Welcome to ChaCha!
Search Guide: Hello
Alex: hey there, how does this work?
Search Guide: Give me just a moment to find your information.
Search Guide: You ask for the information and I find the answers via websites.
Alex: ok, i am actually a journalist trying out the service
Search Guide: Thanks for using cha cha.
Alex: ok, and u yourself use chacha?
Search Guide: I sure do.
Alex: cool. do you get paid for this?
Search Guide: Yes, we get paid $5 per search hour after we reach pro level.
Alex: can you tell me where you based and how many of you are there?
Search Guide: We work from our homes. There are about 10,000 of us.
Alex: are you in United States?
Search Guide: Are these results sufficient?
Search Guide: Yes, I'm in the US.
Search Guide: Is there anything else on this topic I can find for you today?
Alex: Do you search and then hand send me the results?
Search Guide: Yes, we do.
Alex: Awesome - i love this.
Search Guide: Great, glad to hear it.
Alex: the only thing i do not get is your economics
Alex: you get $5 per hour for this?
Search Guide: What do you mean?
Search Guide: Yes, we do?
Alex: ok, thanks!

While I was chatting with the search guide, the results that she selected were appearing on my screen. By comparing these results with the raw results that I got by myself, I could tell that she was looking at exactly the same result set. What the guide was doing was cherry picking stuff for me. If she liked a result, she would press a button and it would appear on my screen, right in the standard result search area. I thought this was slick, but there are three pressing questions: 

1. Is this useful?

2. Can this scale? 

3. How does ChaCha make money?

Pros and Cons of ChaCha

So who would be using this sort of thing, and why? The ChaCha about section states:

"By searching with a Guide your query is sent to a real person who is skilled at finding information on the internet and knowledgeable on the subject at hand so that you get the few exact results you want, not the millions of results you don't. ChaCha only provides quality, human approved results."

Well it does not seem like the tech savvy crowd would be interested. Clearly, people who are not as web savvy are the primary target. The difficulty here though is that these people would still need to know how to operate the computer, navigate to the ChaCha site and then know what to do with the results. The problem with this though is that guides are manually scanning exactly the same result set, so how much better can the outcome be?

According to the guide I spoke to, there are 10,000 people signed up to do this with ChaCha. This is a very large number considering the fact that the service is still in beta. In practical terms, it seems like it could work - but it is difficult to imagine how it could be done on the scale of Google.

And how about the economics? $5 per (search) hour seems a lot, considering there are supposedly 10,000 guides. This works out to be hundreds of thousands of dollars per day! So the numbers are quite high and given the fact there are no few ads on the site, the pressing question is how are they planning to make money. We hope that someone from ChaCha comments on this. 

Let's not dismiss this too quickly

All these negatives that we've pointed out paint a fairly gloomy picture. But we sense that ChaCha has a few tricks up its sleeve that might not be readily apparent. What seems to be going on is a massive Artificial Intelligence (AI) bootcamp. From the About page:

"The more you use ChaCha, the smarter and faster ChaCha becomes! Because ChaCha indexes all the questions that are asked and associates them with the search engines and resources used by Guides, and the links visited by the users, ChaCha knows where to look and what the best human-approved resources are for each question or topic."

This is a unique, interesting and clever twist on search. The entire human sifting process is leveraged to train the automated engine to create, in essence, an equivalent of a page rank. With time, ChaCha will get better and better - because more quality search results will be discovered. For this to succeed, the number of guides needs to scale with the amount of new information online - which is not simple. But we have to assume that the ChaCha company has a plan for that. If it works, we'll get what I think will be the first example of AI training done on such scale. 

Do you think that this can work? Give it a try and let is know.