ChaCha Dances with Mobile Search

ChaCha logoCan you build a better search engine than Google? Lots of companies want to. But search already works pretty well — pretty well, that is, if you’re sitting at your computer. If you’re on the go with just a phone, it’s not quite so easy to get the information you need.

That’s because effective searching often involves orienteering — finding information step-by-step, and using local context at each step as a guide. Orienteering-style search on a mobile phone, however, is next to impossible. Startup ChaCha is looking to change that with textChaCha, a human-managed search available via text messaging from your mobile phone.

ChaCha’s mobile search is built upon their basic human-guided search, which has met with widespread skepticism due to underqualified human guides, pranksters using the service, and questions about whether anyone really needs a hand with searching. President and co-founder Brad Bostic admits that the initial set of guides ChaCha recruited didn’t always do a good job with guided web search. Now, he says, the company has put in place training procedures and understands better what sort of people might succeed as a search guide.

More importantly, however, ChaCha’s mobile search looks more promising because it addresses the fundamental difficulty of search-on-the-go: distilling an entire search experience into one good answer. And that’s something better done by a human who can engage in orienteering.

To use textChaCha, just text your question to short code 242242 (that spells “chacha” on most phones). Your question will be routed to a ChaCha guide who will provide an answer within minutes, as well as a link to more in-depth results that you can browse later.

Given that you don’t have to use specific keywords — you just ask your question using whatever text abbreviations and natural language you want — and you don’t have to use different services, textChaCha could eliminate the need to use a variety of other mobile information services.

ChaCha is one of a number of search startups looking for the right mix of human brainpower and computer algorithms to help people find what they’re looking for online. The startup that got the most buzz in 2007 was Jason Calacanis’ human-powered search engine Mahalo, even though it has appeared, to some, to be little more than a rehash of past attempts at creating web directories using people.

Like Mahalo, ChaCha offers human-curated search results in their “instant search.” If you enter search terms into the search box on their web site, your results may include “cool, hard-to-find sites” picked by ChaCha’s experts.

But the more interesting (or perhaps more easily ridiculed) part of ChaCha is guided search, upon which textChaCha is based. ChaCha has recruited thousands of guides who are provided with a toolset for helping ChaCha searchers find just the information they need. From your computer, you can search with a guide who chats with you about what you’re looking for and provides results; the guide then fine-tunes them based on your feedback.

ChaCha has won ample funding. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was the lead investor in the first $6 million round, and most recently, ChaCha took an $8 million equity investment and received a $2 million grant from the state of Indiana, where the company is headquartered.

Bostic wants to get the service offered as an add-on to cell-phone plans. This could be a way of reaching a target market that doesn’t want to learn, for example, Google SMS search keywords and yet wants the benefit of online information while on the go.

ChaCha, by providing orienteering-by-proxy that users need for mobile search, may have come up with a winning dance.