AT&T [T] announced on Wednesday that it would partner with human-powered search engine ChaCha, whose natural-language search application has found its niche among text-message users. The two companies will engage in cross-promotion, but no other technological initiatives have been announced.
ChaCha allows mobile phone users to text or speak a question in natural English by calling 800-2ChaCha (224-2242), or text-messaging ChaCha (242-242). Once your question is received, it is bounced through a taxonomy of human "ambassadors," as ChaCha calls them, where it is eventually placed with a "guide" who is an expert in question's topic. ChaCha employs tens of thousands of at-home guides nationwide on a part-time, contract basis.
ChaCha isn't the first search engine to provide SMS queries; texting Google [GOOG] at GOOGL (466-45) with a basic search (say, "weather in New York City") can get you decent results too. But Google's SMS search is simple-minded, and can't interpret complex questions. If you ask it something it doesn't understand, it often texts you back three possible answers, all of which are typically wrong. And you've wasted four texts.
ChaCha, by comparison, doesn't text you back immediately the way Google does. But when it does (after 1-2 minutes), it's with a cohesive sentence, always germane, and a clickable link that can give you more information.
Waiting a couple of minutes for an answer doesn't sound like much, but when you're in the middle of resolving a debate with your friends, or in some other desperate moment of confusion, it can seem like an eternity.
According to ChaCha's President Brad Bostic, they're working on the speed problem. The site's proprietary software remembers and indexes queries, so that guides don't end up researching the same question over and over. "The incremental amount of work on top of a given question, on top of what the system already knows, gets smaller and smaller every month," he said. "The system is getting smarter, such that the yield per guide gets higher and higher, and the cost per answer gets lower." That means faster answers, and more efficient guides to handle whatever uptick in traffic is gleaned from the AT&T deal.
But if ChaCha wants to make this relationship a meaningful one, they'll have to do a lot more than cross promotion. That's because ChaCha isn't really competing with GOOGL or any other robot — it's competing with your friends and associates, the people you'd normally text when you have a niche question ("Bob from college follows hockey, so I'll text him to see how many shots the Rangers had last night.") If they want to succeed at re-wiring AT&T customers to think of ChaCha first, they'll need to bring out the big guns.
How about a ChaCha search application for iPhone and BlackBerry? Or ChaCha search integrated into mobile Safari alongside Google? Maybe a "Text ChaCha" option along with SMS and MMS on dumb-phones? Or even a smartphone app that tosses out random queries from their database, the way Wikipedia's addictive "random article" link does?
AT&T is wise to realize ChaCha's potential on mobile phones, where searching, re-searching and filtering results from an algorithmic engine just isn't practical. They've show an incipient understanding of the utility of human-powered Internet, but it's only a start.