In a Google-dominated world, starting a new search engine would seem a bad bet. But Scott Jones, an Indiana entrepreneur credited with perfecting voicemail, is undaunted. He believes would-be Google rivals like Microsoft have missed the mark by trying to outdo it with more powerful machines and algorithms.
His new search play, ChaCha, is instead putting its faith in an army of 3,000 expert searchers to personally help users find what they're seeking. Visitors can choose to search with a guide—live via an instant-messaging program—who returns only a handful of sites and sticks with the user until the hunt is complete.
Jones thinks ChaCha will appeal to those who are unsatisfied with typical search engines. He cites two-year-old Microsoft research that shows it takes an average of 11 minutes for searchers to sort through the list of returned links.
"Google sends 2 million results in a split second, then [users] have to sift through it. But the problem is, people don't sift through it," said Jones, who is financing ChaCha with president Brad Bostic and angel investors.
ChaCha's ad model also differs by including graphical and video ads, which are targeted based on the query.
ChaCha is relying on word of mouth to grow. If its high-touch search catches fire, however, ChaCha will need to grow its guide population exponentially. Jones sees college students as a Web-savvy pool of 10 million eager to earn $5 to $10 per hour as search experts in hundreds of areas. ChaCha's peer review will ensure quality control, Jones added.
The system could work, said Rob Enderlee, an industry analyst with Enderlee Group. "Most of the people out there searching have no damn clue how to search," he said.
Big players are also eyeing social search. Yahoo has integrated its wisdom-of-the-crowds Q&A system, Yahoo Answers, into search results, and Google recently was awarded a patent for including "editorial opinion in the ranking of search results."