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Cognitive Computing Authors: Zakia Bouachraoui, Pat Romanski, Yeshim Deniz, Liz McMillan, Elizabeth White

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ChaCha And Aardvark: Putting Humans To Work To Get You The Answers You Need

Two startups, ChaCha and Mechanical Zoo, are taking different approaches to tap human intelligence, and human labor, and get you quick answers to your questions.

Despite attempts to evolve search into something more human friendly, there’s still a big hole there. As useful as Google is, it doesn’t answer questions very well, and it isn’t good at making highly subjective recommendations (where shall I eat dinner tonight? What’s the best show to see in London right now?).

That’s where people come in. We ask them stuff all the time. It’s part of being human, and social, and works very well in the offline world.

A bunch of sites have tried over the years to create “question and answer” portals to address this need in the online world. The questions range from requests for recommendations to research-type stuff, and they tend to do very well in search engine rankings. Yahoo Answers is the most successful example, with 152 million unique worldwide visitors and nearly 1.3 billion page views.

But the quality of answers, to put it plainly, sucks. We’ve heard that internal Yahoo estimates say only around 10% of the content created on the Answers site is of any real use. A quick perusal of the site confirms this. There’s also no way to guarantee fast answers to questions.

That’s where ChaCha and Aardvark come in.

ChaCha

ChaCha first launched in January 2007 as a web based human search engine. They hire guides to answer incoming questions.

It’s had a very rough time since then, with angry guides writing about their experiences, and angry or amused customers noting the disparity of results compared to normal search engines (our complete coverage is here).

But ChaCha does provide an amazing mobile version of the service (as I grudgingly admitted here). You can either text a question to 242242 (ChaCha) or call it in at 1-800-224-2242 (2ChaCha) and receive a text message back with the answer a couple of minutes later. Most of the time the answer quality is very good, particularly if you compare it to the difficulty of using a browser based search engine on a mobile device.

The company is also doing quite well, they say. The service is free for up to twenty questions each thirty days, and they get half a million of them per day.

Guides are paid ten or twenty cents per question they answer, and are simultaneously creating a knowledge base for commonly asked questions. The company says revenue is starting to come in as well - some answers contain unobtrusive ads. One example: in a recent question the response said “*Reply RTONES for Ringtones.” When I replied with that i got a link to the thumbplay ring tone site.

Guides aren’t paid much, but some seem to look at is as a hobby. In a comment on a recent post, a ChaCha guide wrote:

I work part time for ChaCha as a guide. I consider the earnings from this job, my coffee or play money. I am a systems analyst for a large financial investments firm. Due to the nature of my job, I couldn’t have a part time job out in the public for various reasons. So– this ChaCha guide job fit the bill. Might as well do something while sitting watching tv at night and surfing the net. Many other guides are stay at home parents, folks between jobs, students, and those sort of like myself just looking for a way to make extra money for whatever reason. It ends up bringing in about $300-400.00 a month for me in extra funds. For me, I can find MOST anything on the web so the job is much like a game– how fast can I accurately answer a question back to an infoseeker. To go from generic info about the size of a whale’s penis to the difference between felsic and mafic magma types, to does billy really like me, and finally to provide me the differences between obama and mccain’s environmental policies– it keeps the brain snappy and things interesting during time I would have spent just randomly surfing.


Mechanical Zoo

Mechanical Zoo is the new kid on the block. They just raised a big round of financing and are in private beta with their Aardvark product (get an invite here).

Aardvark is a way to get quick, quality answers to questions from your extended social network. You can ask questions via an instant message buddy or email. The questions are then farmed out to your contacts (and their contacts) based on what they say they have knowledge of. If you ask taste related questions about music, books, movies, restaurants, etc., they’ll ask people who tend to show similar tastes as you in their profile.

You’ll use Aardvark differently than ChaCha. Aardvark is for getting recommendations on things, whereas ChaCha is best at answering questions that have some definitive answer. But both leverage humans to get information to you that search engines don’t have an easy time answering.

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