Cha-Cha, New Human Powered Search Engine

A fellow FIMS student pointed me to a new human-assisted search engine called Cha-Cha

It allows you to do regular searches but if you're stymied, you can also click on the “Search With Guide” button, a chat box pops up and you're quickly connected with one of their guides. 

Who are the guides?   It doesn't really say but the site apparently has a classification for “Master” searchers and they, in turn, are the only ones who can invite others to be new searchers.  (Not that I saw any other qualification needed to become a new searcher other than knowing somebody already on the inside.) 

The site says that searchers are paid between $5-$10/hour based on performance and can work from any computer with a broadband connection. 

I logged in and chatted a bit with “Tiffany”, the first guide I was given but then lost her trying to get her to help me find a web site for “Jason Hammond in Canada.” 

I re-connected and gave “Joe” a different question that was actually something I'd been meaning to look for – a list of every band that had won Rolling Stone's band of the year award since the magazine started (or first started giving out year-end awards anyway.) 

After leaving me on “hold” for a couple minutes, Joe came back with these results then hung up rather abruptly, thanking me for using Cha-Cha. 

(Wait a sec…just noticed, the top of the results page had this disclaimer: “The Guide did not provide results. Please “Search With Guide” again, or you can try following these links.“)

I wonder if the searchers give up quickly if they can't find the answer since it hurts their per hour performance pay or something?  

I should log-in again with a question that I know an answer is out there (but that would take more than a simple Google search to find.)  Maybe one of my 503 RQ's?  Just a sec…(er, you don't know that it takes me a sec.  Isn't this cyberspace wonderful?)

Here's one:

“Which antiquarian
bookstore in Mississippi has the largest stock?

This time I saved my chat transcript:

“Status: Connecting …
Status: Looking for a guide …
Status: Connected to guide: Brandt(81601)
Brandt(81601): Welcome to ChaCha!
You: hey there!
Brandt(81601): Hello
You: can you help me with a question?
Brandt(81601): Yes… just one moment
You: i'm trying to find the largest antiquarian bookstore in Mississippi.
Brandt(81601): sure thing
You: how did you get to work for cha-cha? are you guys paid?
Brandt(81601): Yes… you have to get invited by an employee and go through a short training stage
You: online?
Brandt(81601): Yes
You: how many guides do they have? it must be a lot!
Brandt(81601): I'm not sure… good question
You: maybe that will be my next search! 🙂
You: any luck?
Brandt(81601): these are highly recommended
You: how'd you find them?
Brandt(81601): messageboards for theses
You: do you just go over to google? 🙂
You: oh…i see.
You: can you give me that link as well?
Brandt(81601): No, many different sources
You: oh, i see.
You: you're going to put libraries out of business!
Brandt(81601): I hope not… one of my fav places!
You: mine too!
You: libraries aren't open right now.
Brandt(81601): Good thing you have us then!
You: can i ask – do you get paid by the question or the hour or ???
Brandt(81601): pretty much fifty cents a search
You: i clicked on that link to choctaw books – it looks perfect.
Brandt(81601): Great… anything else I can help with?
You: do i have to do anything to prove y
ou gave a good answer?

Brandt(81601): just rate me!
Brandt(81601): Have a great night also!
You: where's that?
Brandt(81601): Please RATE ME. Thanks for using ChaCha.
Status: Session ended.”

So, final verdict?   Well, after the first two searches, my impression that the site was pretty rough but it definitely had potential.  But I think other sites in the past have tried something similar but the labour cost killed them.  Does machine-driven Google rake in over fifty cents on every search?  I think their click rates are variable depending on the keyword so probably on average, they do.  So if Cha-Cha could incorporate relevant text ads, maybe they could make a go of it?  Their guides pay for their own internet connections and hardware.  So the company's costs are probably fairly low. 

The newly minted librarian snob in me was pretty nervous about trusting searches to untrained people, especially when the price is the same whether you're using Cha-Cha or your library's reference desk (and with more and more libraries doing virtual reference via chat, IM, web-based modules, etc., there is similiarity.  But libraries have limited hours – and not everyone will think to log-in to a virtual reference desk in another time zone like one classmate did for an assignment.  And often the interfaces for libraries virtual reference aren't as straight forward as this one was.)

Plus Cha-cha claims that its algorithm keeps track of successful answers and will get better as time goes on.

I'm sure my RQ hadn't been asked before.  But this guy did get me the correct answer for my question in a couple minutes which I have to admit, surprised me. (It took me about four days to find the right answer at library school!

Of course, librarians are trained to back up their answers with multiple sources and three of those days were trying to find a print source!  Plus this guy wasn't able to tell me exactly where he got the answer in case I wanted to verify it (which I might've if I didn't already know that was the right answer.  But then again, maybe the answer he gave would be enough for most people?)

So are libraries going to have to compete with search engines and human powered answering services?  They already do.  And is the future of reference in any form, increasingly going to happen online?   I'd argue that it already does.

[Edit: Here's some more info about the behind-the-scenes of Cha-Cha.  Sounds like there's a bit of a pyramid scheme aspect to how searchers get paid in that you get 10% of what your invited seachers earn.  Here's something else interesting:

have the best system around for issuing your pay.  You are issued a
visa debit card with First Internet Bank.  There is a “Pay Me Now” link
on the website.  You click this link and the funds are instantly loaded
to your visa debit card.  Have you been paid this fast from a real
job.  HA, I bet you haven't.  Anyway, I have been working for
Cha Cha since August and I love it.  Anytime my money is low, I just
log in and work a while and get paid the same day.  I have used Cha Cha
to pay a bill at the last minute, go grocery shopping, and to take my
son out for a night on the town.

TechCrunch aren't fans of the site and relate a story from a former guide who claims that 90% of the guides are pranksters (whatever they mean by that – maybe just people who aren't serious about giving good answers?) and also a screenshot of an exchange where a guide apparently didn't know what Digg was.

And some more criticism from a former guide.

One more…here's a (real ) librarian's POV review of the service.  And I think this is pretty self-evident but I should note that I realise any thoughts I have about this site are based on a total of  two and a half searches.  My suggestion is that you try it yourself and  form your own conclusions!]

Comments 3

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    I think I see what they're trying to do, but there are more reliable places to go, I just finished an assignment with the Internet Public Library ( when you ask a question (which can involve searching for sources) your questions are answered by volunteer librarians and library students (some of whom are doing it for credit, but I would submit that makes the answers more detailed and accurate).
    It's a much better bet for answers to your questions (if you can't get the library), you can submit questions from anywhere in the world (that you have internet access) at any time of day, the answers are not immediately available, but there are guidelines on turnaround time in place. The sources provided will be freely available online, 3/4 of the time and the user is given the search strategy used.

    Posted 15 Mar 2007 at 9:10 pm
  2. Anonymous wrote:

    I have some criticisms of Cha-Cha too. Actually, damning criticisms. Read them here:

    Posted 17 Mar 2007 at 5:38 pm
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    I am so dense. The reason that the Cha-Cha guide was able to pull up the perfect answer so quickly is because the first Google result for my question, phrased exactly the same way, is the question I posted on AskMF (which also provided the answer which I conveniently marked.) Duh!
    So I think my next step is to come up with an original RQ and try it at a few different spots – RPL, IPL, Cha-Cha, AskMF (after I get results from the others) and see who “wins”.
    I didn't get into the $5-10/hr thing much in my post but that is an issue with this search engine in a larger sense. As Quinn says, these are not really “expert” searchers at Cha-Cha in any sense of the word though they do describe their guides that way.
    I mean, without getting into a minimum wage debate (uhm, it should be higher than it is pretty much whenever you are reading this from), it is kinda cool that a person can make $5-10/hr from the comfort of their home, setting their own hours, etc. But some of the critical sites claim that it works out closer to $2/hr so, not so good.
    I don't know enough about the behind-the-scenes of ChaCha to comment on its inner workings and policies but yeah, it just strikes me as typical coporate behaviour to take advantage of employees when and where they can.

    Posted 18 Mar 2007 at 3:55 am
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