ChaCha and the Search Tango

There’s a new crop of search interfaces coming out, many spin offs from the big engines themselves, and I’ll be trying to take a look at them from the user’s perspective. Today I took ChaCha for a spin. Here’s some background (and hype) from their About page

“ChaCha stands out as different and better in a landscape cluttered with common search engines because it uses the World’s most powerful technology – The human brain.

ChaCha’s goal is to provide a better search experience by combining results that are hand-picked by our knowledgeable human guides with the best computer-generated search results. In those cases where you can’t find what you need with our instant results, ChaCha will connect you with a live human guide who will find the information for you through an instant messaging-style search session.

Scott Jones and Brad Bostic, two dynamic entrepreneurs who were not satisfied with millions of irrelevant search results provided by first generation search engines, believed a better experience could be created by tapping into human intelligence. Since starting ChaCha, they have been hard at work with the ChaCha team to create:

  • A smart search engine that “learns” by tapping into human intelligence so its results are always improving
  • A place to find exactly what you’re looking for instantly
  • Help from people who are knowledgeable about the very thing you are looking for when instant results don’t have the answer “

Fellow Enquiro blogger Marina Garrison tried out Cha Cha and shared her thoughts. Here are mine. Unfortunately, there’s no good news here for the Cha Cha team.

“A Better Search Experience”

I started out by looking for hotels in Kauai. I used the default, automated search. At the same time, I did a search on Google for the same query. My intent was to compare my options, so I was looking for a link that would show me a number of properties. Google did pretty well, with both official and unofficial accommodation guides rounding out the top algorithmic results returned in the customary fraction of a second. Definitely something here I would click on.

Cha Cha’s automated results were far less satisfying.

  chachaorigsm

First, there was a sponsored link at the top, but no advertiser. That’s okay, it’s a beta, so I didn’t really expect one. But all the other results have a “sponsored by” line at the bottom. I’m confused. Are they sponsored links or not? Confusion is not good in a user experience. The results were mostly for individual properties, not very descriptive, and the same site showed twice in the top 4 results. The only guide I saw was well down on the top 10, and it wasn’t an official guide. The results weren’t really matched to my intent. Strike Two.  Once again, what was it that Cha Cha was offering?

ChaCha’s goal is to provide a better search experience by combining results that are hand-picked by our knowledgeable human guides with the best computer-generated search results.”

Oh..right. Okay, maybe I’ll try the “knowledgeable human guide” because after all, “it uses the World’s most powerful technology – The human brain”

I hit the search with guide button

The interface changed and opened up a pane on the left. There was a pause of at least 10 seconds while I waited to connect with a guide. In 10 seconds on Google, I’d have clicked off the page by now, but I’ll be patient. Finally I’m connected to DelaineL, who greeted me with a “Good Afternoon”. This despite I did this at 10 am local time. Hmmm..mental note for Scott and Brad, our “dynamic entrepreneuers”…you’ll have to work out that time change thing.

Now, I wasn’t sure what to do. Do they just pick up from the last query I did? There were no instructions I could see. I waited. Finally DelaineL sent me a “Hi!”. I guess I have to reenter my query in the message box. We’re approaching a minute now. I told Delaine (not sure whether this is a male or female Delaine) I was looking to compare hotels in Kauai. I wanted to be fair, giving my human guide a chance to give me the types of results I was looking for.

“Find exactly what you’re looking for instantly “

I was expecting a page of 10 results to pop right up. Instead, after many more seconds, I got one.

chacha1sm

And it was for the same site that showed up twice in the top 4 organic results. This was the best that the “world’s most powerful technology” can do?  Also, the page they sent me was actually a landing page built for a Google Adwords campaign. Not really what I was looking for. So, was this the only result I was going to get? I asked my guide. I was told the second result was loading. When it came up, it was an Expedia search results page, along with an apology for the delay and the assurance that Delaine was looking for the most relevant results. The response sounded suspiciously canned though.

chacha2sm

I guess that’s what took the time, the guide went to Expedia and launched the search for me. I guess that’s good.

“People who are knowledgeable about the very thing you are looking for “

Okay, I’m sure Delaine is an excellent person, kind to kids and animals, and is probably an expert in many areas, but what makes him/her an expert on Kauai? How does Delaine know what I was searching for? Does ChaCha have a room full of people monitoring my initial search activity, and when I click on the guide button, a red light starts flashing and an announcement rings out at Cha Cha Headquarters, “Attention, we need a Kauai Expert on seach 1045..Stat!!” ? I somehow doubt it. Lets put the “knowledgeable” line down to more marketing spin.

Also, do we really want a human somewhere knowing what we’re searching for? I don’t think so. Most of us prefer to search anonymously, or at least what we think is anonymously (ignorance is bliss in this case, until we’re rudely awoken by a AOL debacle). I suppose if someone were really stuck, they would try their luck with a search guide, but based on my experience, it wouldn’t be something I would ever do again.

By this point, I had spent a good 2 or 3 minutes doing something that would take a few seconds on Google, and I didn’t get results any better than I would have received there. Sorry ChaCha, but you hit a sour note with me.

And now I go on my user experience diatribe. There’s obviously a lot of infrastructure behind Cha Cha. I have no idea how many human guides they have but to make this scalable (they say thousands), but it appears that they’re paid by the search. This is not a cheap start up. But this will undoubtedly fail. It offers no compelling reason to use it. It’s far inferior to other options that have established themselves with users. A little bit of research should have shown this. I’ve talked to a few people who have used it. None of them will ever use it again. I’m sure the people at ChaCha will say they had tremendous response from their initial tests. BS. If thats the response they got, they weren’t doing the tests correctly. This will be a waste of a lot of people’s time and some significant investment on somebody’s (apparently Jeff Bezos) part. And it could have been avoided with proper usability testing. There’s a lot wrong with ChaCha, and not much right. The interface is junky and clunky. It’s like a flashback to the dot com bubble.

If you’re going to Cha Cha, try not to step on your partner’s toes. I’m still limping.

Postscript

After the post, I ran across Rob Garner’s SearchInsider column from yesterday (obviously have to clean out my folders more often) on his experience with ChaCha. While not ideal, it seems Rob is more optimistic than I am:

“I would bet that they find a niche in the market with a loyal user base, and that we may see more innovation from them to come in the form of user interface, and/or behavioral research. “

I guess one thing ChaCha has going for it is the ability to get live user feedback, real time. I hope they listen.

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