ChaCha, KGB see text messages as alternative to search engines on cellphones

By Sarah Halzack
Sunday, August 15, 2010

Need to know the weather forecast for Boise, Idaho? Trying to settle a bar bet about the colors of the Zambian flag? Wondering which Pauly Shore movie came first, "Encino Man" or "Son in Law"?

For many people, finding an answer has practically become a reflex: Google it. But as mobile technology becomes increasingly entwined with daily life, at least two companies -- ChaCha and KGB -- are betting there's a growing appetite for a different way to get answers on the go.

Both firms are banking on the premise that cellphone users want a single, direct answer to a question. Many people still don't have phone plans that allow for Web use, and those who do, the companies' executives contend, cannot be bothered with sifting through search results on a tiny screen.

"The search experience is fundamentally different on mobile," said Bruce Stewart, chief executive of KGB.

Enter the idea of human-powered search.

Instead of using an algorithm to produce results, as Google and Yahoo do, ChaCha and KGB rely on people to generate their answers. ChaCha provides a free service that allows users to send queries by text or voice message and then receive a text reply, often accompanied by an advertisement, from one of the company's approximately 50,000 part-time responders. Competitor KGB has a similar setup, although its users pay 99 cents per answer and are spared the outside advertising with each response.

Executives of both companies say they are convinced that they can find a niche on cellphones, even as Google and Yahoo dominate the search market on computers. And both firms are getting some traction: The Nielsen Co. reports that in the first quarter of 2010, ChaCha's text service had almost 3 million unique users, while KGB's had about 1.7 million users. ChaCha saw a 4.3 percent increase in unique users from the fourth quarter of 2009, while KGB saw a 17.7 percent rise, according to Nielsen.

Despite those increases, some critics see difficulties for the companies as they try to gain footing in the shadow of giants in the search universe. Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, a trade publication about search engines, said human-powered search "has a place" but cautioned that "it's not going to become Google. They're not even on the radar screen of becoming Google."

Sullivan and other skeptics have noted that the quality of the companies' answers is inconsistent.

"Typically when I've looked at them, the answers have been really poor," Sullivan said.

The texting services are most popular with teens and early-20-somethings. Although it wasn't ChaCha's initial plan to target that demographic, ChaCha chief executive Scott Jones said it makes sense that young people have been the service's earliest and most loyal adopters.

"Teens and young adults, that's where they live," said Jones, referring to the textosphere.

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