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Texting experts for an Internet search

ChaCha guide Diana Braun, works out of a Panera Bread in Fort Lauderdale using free Wifi.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The latest search engine rankings from Neilsen Online confirm what most of us already knew: Google leads the pack going away. It owns almost two thirds of the eight billion online queries that're made every day in this country. That's on the computer, though. What about searches on a different, but perhaps more common, electronic device. One that most of us carry in our pockets. Search by cell phone is a different game. The screens are small, the keypads are cumbersome and users are usually in a bit of a hurry. But there is still a business model for it. As Marketplace's Dan Grech reports.


Dan Grech: Say you're at a dinner party and the conversation turns to auction-rate securities. You could nod knowingly and keep your mouth shut. Or you could duck into the bathroom and call or text ChaCha. Within minutes, you'd be tossing around terms like nominal maturity and tax-exempt bonds. Brad Bostic is co-founder of ChaCha.

Brad Bostic: It's like having a smart friend available through your cell phone that can answer any question for you 24 hours a day, on any topic.

Diana Braun is one of those smart friends, or guides. ChaCha employs 20,000 Diana's around the country.
They take questions and text back answers -- at no charge.

Diana Braun: So here I got my first question: Cleveland or Pittsburgh, which is a better city?

[Sound of Diana typing on a computer] She consults her favorite research tool. That would be Google. Fifty-two seconds later, she's got an answer.

Braun: I think I'm gonna have to go with Cleveland on this one. I'll give 'em a couple of reasons why.

She texts back, "Visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and enjoy the lakeside views." Diane gets paid 20 cents for every question she answers. And they're not all that easy.

Braun: I need a quick money-making venture. Any ideas? Is today a good day to take off my shirt? When is the Lord coming back? Hmm. This is a toughie.

ChaCha attracts its share of textaholics who bombard the service with goofball queries. But it's not all fun and games. Greg Sterling's an editor at SearchEngineLand.com. He says ChaCha provides a service of real value.

Greg Sterling: The human intelligence piece of this is like directory assistance on steroids.

He says people on their cell phone are on the go. They don't want to wade through search results. They want answers.

Sterling Let's take, for example, a plasma TV. You go into a particular store, they've sold out of it. Who else has it within a reasonable driving distance? Somebody who is ready to buy a product like that is really susceptible to sale information. That's the concept: right time, right ad, right place.

ChaCha's Bostic says the plan is for guides to act as personal assistants directing people to restaurants, movie theaters, stores.

Bostic: That generates a revenue stream to our company. Instead of getting pennies, like a search engine might, we get dollars, because it's creating a very efficient exchange.

ChaCha is also looking at ways to target users with ads. The company hopes to turn a profit by the middle of next year. In the meantime, ChaCha is building an extensive database of questions and answers.
100,000 questions pour in each day. Mark Malseed is Dean of Search University, ChaCha's training site for guides. He says eventually, guides won't have to rely on Google.

Mark Malseed: One of the things we are trying to do is collect these real gem answers and when possible, we'll use them again, creating our own library of information snippets.

That database could provide insight into user's habits, something advertisers love. And it could make things easier for guides like Diana Braun when they have question of their own.

Braun: All right, so the question I'm sending ChaCha is, "I am a ChaCha guide. Why do I get so many Chuck Norris joke questions?"

She says she gets five to 10 Chuck Norris queries every night.

Braun: So the answer is, "It might be because he's always on late night TV, and it's easy to make up corny jokes about him.

Another great mystery solved.

I'm Dan Grech for Marketplace.

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