ChaCha And Aardvark: Putting Humans To Work To Get You The Answers You Need
by Michael Arrington on November 3, 2008

Two startups, ChaCha and Mechanical Zoo, are taking different approaches to tap human intelligence, and human labor, and get you quick answers to your questions.

Despite attempts to evolve search into something more human friendly, there’s still a big hole there. As useful as Google is, it doesn’t answer questions very well, and it isn’t good at making highly subjective recommendations (where shall I eat dinner tonight? What’s the best show to see in London right now?).

That’s where people come in. We ask them stuff all the time. It’s part of being human, and social, and works very well in the offline world.

A bunch of sites have tried over the years to create “question and answer” portals to address this need in the online world. The questions range from requests for recommendations to research-type stuff, and they tend to do very well in search engine rankings. Yahoo Answers is the most successful example, with 152 million unique worldwide visitors and nearly 1.3 billion page views.

But the quality of answers, to put it plainly, sucks. We’ve heard that internal Yahoo estimates say only around 10% of the content created on the Answers site is of any real use. A quick perusal of the site confirms this. There’s also no way to guarantee fast answers to questions.

That’s where ChaCha and Aardvark come in.

ChaCha

ChaCha first launched in January 2007 as a web based human search engine. They hire guides to answer incoming questions.

It’s had a very rough time since then, with angry guides writing about their experiences, and angry or amused customers noting the disparity of results compared to normal search engines (our complete coverage is here).

But ChaCha does provide an amazing mobile version of the service (as I grudgingly admitted here). You can either text a question to 242242 (ChaCha) or call it in at 1-800-224-2242 (2ChaCha) and receive a text message back with the answer a couple of minutes later. Most of the time the answer quality is very good, particularly if you compare it to the difficulty of using a browser based search engine on a mobile device.

The company is also doing quite well, they say. The service is free for up to twenty questions each thirty days, and they get half a million of them per day.

Guides are paid ten or twenty cents per question they answer, and are simultaneously creating a knowledge base for commonly asked questions. The company says revenue is starting to come in as well - some answers contain unobtrusive ads. One example: in a recent question the response said “*Reply RTONES for Ringtones.” When I replied with that i got a link to the thumbplay ring tone site.

Guides aren’t paid much, but some seem to look at is as a hobby. In a comment on a recent post, a ChaCha guide wrote:

I work part time for ChaCha as a guide. I consider the earnings from this job, my coffee or play money. I am a systems analyst for a large financial investments firm. Due to the nature of my job, I couldn’t have a part time job out in the public for various reasons. So– this ChaCha guide job fit the bill. Might as well do something while sitting watching tv at night and surfing the net. Many other guides are stay at home parents, folks between jobs, students, and those sort of like myself just looking for a way to make extra money for whatever reason. It ends up bringing in about $300-400.00 a month for me in extra funds. For me, I can find MOST anything on the web so the job is much like a game– how fast can I accurately answer a question back to an infoseeker. To go from generic info about the size of a whale’s penis to the difference between felsic and mafic magma types, to does billy really like me, and finally to provide me the differences between obama and mccain’s environmental policies– it keeps the brain snappy and things interesting during time I would have spent just randomly surfing.


Mechanical Zoo

Mechanical Zoo is the new kid on the block. They just raised a big round of financing and are in private beta with their Aardvark product (get an invite here).

Aardvark is a way to get quick, quality answers to questions from your extended social network. You can ask questions via an instant message buddy or email. The questions are then farmed out to your contacts (and their contacts) based on what they say they have knowledge of. If you ask taste related questions about music, books, movies, restaurants, etc., they’ll ask people who tend to show similar tastes as you in their profile.

You’ll use Aardvark differently than ChaCha. Aardvark is for getting recommendations on things, whereas ChaCha is best at answering questions that have some definitive answer. But both leverage humans to get information to you that search engines don’t have an easy time answering.

Comments rss icon

  • soon you rot capitalism finally break down and done the Soviet Union!

  • justdial does something similar in India and is quite successful.

  • I think that the future is in online recommandations by people you trust and know.

  • I run a next generation free* Live Chat service for websites and what I can say from experience is that Humans make REALLY bad guides. You can use humans to chat with visitors and provide them domain knowledge into what you are selling or promoting but other than that, relying on a small group of humans to grab the answers is just plain ineffective.

    This is the bottom line: Human-powered Search is just another form of Glorified Online Concierge. I think it would be way better if they label themselves as such instead of “Human-powered Search” or “Social Search”.

    Even after doing the math, I still can’t imagine how can such search methods be anywhere profitable???

    • “Human-powered Search is just another form of Glorified Online Concierge.”

      Is that really such a bad thing though? It actually sounds good to me, at least when concierge services have a decent answer.

      On a seperate topic, maybe humans will at some point be analyzing the intent of the question and breaking it down to find an answer instead of having one person analyze and answer the entire question? This is one of those “under the radar” things that I think will be more evident in the next few years.

    • “Human-powered Search is just another form of Glorified Online Concierge.”

      Is that really such a bad thing though? Good enough for India, right?

    • @Zopim. “relying on a small group of humans to grab the answers is just plain ineffective” as is a *large* group of humans too.

      The proof is right here on TC: for any given topic, we could read a few comments [postings too!] that are really valuable but the great majority are useless dribble from the uninformed to the confused. Plus comments from a few dudes who are actually drunk or smoking weed… [yeah! what is wrong with thaaaaaaaaaaaat? Huh?]

  • Oh, and what is sorely missing from Mechanical Zoo is a Reputation system, for example you’ll wouldn’t want to grab answers from people with differing tastes just because they are your friends.

    Will Mechanical Zoo be able to create a Knowledge bank from the queries? That would be something to watch out for though….

  • I agree that there is a huge hole in Q&A regarding quality. I also think it’s only beginning to take off.

    That’s why we created http://www.fluther.com — a high-quality Q&A collective that specializes in getting fast answers from the right people.

    If you’re interested in ChaCha or Aardvark, you should definitely check out Fluther.

  • ChaCha is the only one implementing any kind of system to moniter answer quality. Better guides get paid more, Bad guides get fired. At least they have the right idea, there’s no way to moniter ’social answers’ sites like fluther

    • The idea of “monitoring” doesn’t always apply to the subjective questions that thrive in Q&A.

      We have a team of volunteers that remove bad content, a voting framework, plus a “lurve” score for reputation.

      But, ultimately, deciding what’s a good answer to the question “What’s good to cook for a date?” is itself nuanced and human. It’s not appropriate to give someone a C+ for writing “sandwiches,” because it will depend on the reader.

      • if someone asks a subjective, conversational question they expect an opinion in return. it’s the quality that is difficult to moniter, i’m saying ChaCha has the right idea.
        If I ask “what’s the best food?” I want a good answer, but I expect it to still be conversational not necessarily objective.

  • that’s not really “getting an invite now” now is it. boo. disclaimer if you’re gonna link me to inviteshare.

  • ChaCha used to be great. Now they limit their questions to 20 a MONTH? Perhaps a day would be good but, 20 a month is ridiculous.

    Don’t expect ChaCha to last much longer.

  • The Geocentric Podcast has a stump Cha Cha segment every Thursday. Right now I think their score is 8 to 8 tied.

  • Has anyone used that invite site? Do you actually get invites? Or does everyone sign up requesting invites and no one ever sends their “extra” invites?

    Momma
    Feature Blogger at Engineer a Debt Free Life

  • Q: Who is the greatest fucker in Silicon Valley?
    A: Michael Arrington!

    Simple

  • Cha cha my aardvark disgruntled humanoid web drones, Qajack the bastard offspring of Poker and Google, that let’s you ‘play with what you know’ is going to put humans to work for themselves and reward them.

  • I’m not sure whether I find the service interesting or not, 118 118 and others in the UK have been doing this for a while usually as a value-add to other services. What I do find fascinating is the quantities of money apparently raised. I’d love to see the revenue model! It astonishes me that ‘me too’s’ and (as with the case of e.g. LinkedIn) revenue nay-sayers or apologists can still continue to raise huge sums of VC.

    At WeCanDo.BIZ we have a solid revenue model and we know exactly where we are going and where our funding is. We are 100% privately owned and growing at an astronomical rate….. so it is possible….still!

    I would welcome anyone to come and take a look and compare our value (for example) to that of a service for people a little too lazy to ask proper questions or indeed to just go read stuff!

    Chris Butler
    COO
    WeCanDo.BIZ

  • i think ChaCha had Layoffs on 11/3/08 - maybe 10% gone

  • You might want to check out our patent pending application, http://www.sidestripe.com , to get immediate answers from your friends while searching (ie: when you are looking for it). And the beta is open to the public right now.

  • Hm, Google does good job with search. However, getting answers from strangers may be useful but only in certain contexts e.g. like on praxias.com where you ask oracle to help you with certain problem.

  • Why not call the library? They’re there to answer your questions. They have access to databases and books as well as the internet. Plus, it’s free and you can ask as many questions as you want. Seems sort of obvious.

  • Yo, Mike, I think you got the info wrong. ChaCha is not limiting 20 questions per month, they are limiting 20 guided question per month but the rest of the questions (weather, stock quotes, jokes, etc) can be asked unlimited.

  • I hope I’m not too late to comment… Is there still room to get on the ChaCha bandwagon or did I miss that too?

    Michael, why the change of heart on ChaCha? You were so right originally when you were dogging them for having a terrible business model and that they’re a joke.

    Let’s see, “bob insider”, things must be going great there if they already laid off 10% of their employees. CrunchBase has them down for 70 employees. (They also have them down for “deadpool” back in April… sounds about right.) Tell me, what is canning 7 pee-ons going to save them compared to the ridiculous cost of their bread and butter… yeah… the mobile questions themselves?

    Let’s do some math here: 500,000 questions a day at 20 cents a guide… oh hell, let’s say they were just paying 10 cents for every question. That’s $50k a day! And $1.5 million a month just in guide salaries! Yikes!

    The math doesn’t add up if they’ve just raised $16M to fund this sinking ship over the last 2 years.

    My guess is they ran out of money a long time ago and are lucky to have a millionaire founder who can float them some cash. Looks to me like they’re having trouble finding funding and if they do, it won’t be enough to cover those crazy costs! Probably will just go to paying him back.

    Or maybe they can get rid of a few more people who make $50k a year. That’ll keep their lights for one more day for each person they can. Brilliant!

    Michael, I hope you go back to writing what you originally thought. I think you were dead on back then. Keep up the good work!!!

  • Once again you fail to mention an even better service than ChaCha called Mosio http://www.mosio.com. It’s human powered as well and even better, it’s community-driven. Plus there are no caps on the number of questions you can ask per month.

    It’s ok, you can’t cover everything, but it seems silly to leave them out of a post like this.

  • click on my website for the article on ChaCha’s layoff.

  • Ajay, the problem with your logic is that ChaCha is still hiring, not only in Carmel, but in New York City as well as other metro areas. Guess you should’ve checked out the ChaCha.com’s career section before heading over here.

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