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Who gives better answers, people or computers? Ask ChaCha

  • Story Highlights
  • New text-message answer services combine humans and technology
  • ChaCha uses 25,000 "guides," or employees, to field questions from their homes
  • Kgb launches beta product that costs 30 cents per question answered
  • ChaCha founder: "People know how to ask questions. What they want is an answer"
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By Jacque Wilson
CNN
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(CNN) -- You're in a bar with a group of friends when an argument breaks out about Neil Diamond's age. Your friend is positive that he's, like, a hundred. You know he can't be more than 70. With no Internet access, how do you find out how old the balladeer is?

Text-message answer service ChaCha, launched in January, has received a product innovation award.

You can ask the mobile search engine ChaCha. And the answer sent to your cell phone will settle the debate: "Neil Diamond is 67 years old." Your friend now owes you a beer.

Computer-automated text message answer services like Google SMS have been around since 2004. But when ChaCha launched its text messaging service in January, it paired human employees with technology -- a method that has won the company several awards.

ChaCha co-founders Brad Bostic and Scott Jones were discussing the overload-of-information age in 2005 when the idea for their corporation emerged. Every search engine returns thousands of Web sites, but what if you could always get a simple, one-sentence answer to your question?

Users text message ChaCha (242242) on their mobile phone or call 1-800-2ChaCha. The question can be on anything -- from local weather forecasts to who starred in the 1960 suspense classic "Psycho" to how many children Angelina Jolie has now.

Questions are sent to a worker, or "guide," who searches the Internet using sites preapproved by ChaCha. When the guide finds the answer, he or she text messages the user back in less than 160 characters -- all for free. ChaCha's Web site promises answers within "just a few minutes."

"The benefits of having a real person on the other end is that they can save you time by sifting through the results to find the most relevant information," said Brian DeLoach, an independent search engine optimization specialist.

ChaCha announced this week that it now has more than a million users. In the year's second quarter, according to Nielsen Mobile data, ChaCha was the fastest-growing mobile search service.

And ChaCha isn't the only player hoping to carve a piece of the $30 billion online search market. Kgb, an Internet information company, recently launched a beta product that offers a similar service. Kgb, though, will charge 30 cents for each question text messaged to 542542.

"There's a certain frustration, in the Web community, of search engines that give you pages and pages of results," Kgb CEO Robert Pines said. "We've found that if you can actually provide an answer, people will pay for it."

Still, people like DeLoach are skeptical about the need for such services. Do ChaCha or Kgb employees actually dig up the right answer, or just pick the first one they find? In other words, do they do what anyone searching Google would do?

"With the rise of Internet-equipped mobile phones, specifically the iPhone, why would I go to ChaCha to search for me when I can just do it myself?" DeLoach asked.

Well, some people use ChaCha for trivia games when they're bored. Others use the service to get jokes or riddles. But the lack of a million search results is most important, Bostic said.

"Regardless of how Internet-capable a phone is, the form factor is small; and while you are on the go, you have no desire to surf," he said. "You want to ask questions and get [quick] answers."

ChaCha's 25,000 guides are mostly college students or stay-at-home moms looking to earn some extra cash. Guides can work whenever they want, anytime of day, for any length of time.

Susan Bowman, a mother of four from Pennsylvania, works for ChaCha because she loves the flexible schedule.

"I'm not really an office-type person," Bowman said. "It kills me to have to sit in a room or a cubicle. I work out of my kitchen with everything around me."

New guides are given tests and put through "Search University" with Mark Malseed, author of "The Google Story." Bostic said that because of this training, ChaCha's accuracy rate is 93 percent. The company has a process for evaluating the correctness of its guides' answers, he said. Some ChaCha employees, however, have complained that company policies emphasized the quantity of answers over quality.

Guides are paid per question, which generally earns them between $3 and $7 an hour. ChaCha guide Joel Brooks was outraged when recent policy changes cut his pay from 20 cents a question to 10 cents a question. Brooks went to the company's online employee forums and found out he wasn't the only one upset.

After once promising employees they could work as much or as little as they wanted, ChaCha announced that only workers who answered at least 300 questions a week would earn 20 cents. After complaints flooded the forums, ChaCha cut the requirement to 200 questions per week, or about six work hours.

"If they hadn't lowered it, I wouldn't be working for them," said Brooks, a University of Michigan student. "But the new quota is much more reasonable."

Bostic takes growing pains like these in stride as the president of a company that answers 10 million questions per month. To boost revenue, ChaCha soon hopes to incorporate advertising into its text-message answers, he said. Bostic also wants to continue focusing on customer satisfaction.

"People know how to ask questions," he said. "It's one of the first things they learn how to do when they talk. What they want is an answer."

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