ChaCha offers new twist on mobile searching: voice queries

Although text-based Internet searches using a PC or mobile phone are nothing new, a Web search service updated its service and now lets users dial a phone number and ask a question rather than type it in.

The ChaCha service, available at (800)-224-2242, publicly launched in January and has had more than 40,000 users test the call-in searches 600,000 times. Callers receive responses in the form of text messages.

Although a voice answer could be in the future, all responses today are in text message form only.

Two years ago, ChaCha first launched as a browser-based live chat where users participated in a browser-based live chat with a "search guide," but the service largely flopped. Scott Jones, the inventor behind the service, said voice search always was the ultimate goal behind ChaCha.

During a test run by BetaNews, we asked ChaCha where good sushi can be found in the San Francisco North Beach area. The first received text message said ChaCha was working on the question asked, while the second text message welcomed us to the service, and a third text message offered a result to our test -- all within three minutes.

Asking the service a more obscure question may lead to a longer wait time before an answer is received.

ChaCha is a free service at the moment, but Jones says he is thinking about working with advertisers in the future. A small number of ads may be rolled out later this year, though an exact time frame was not given.

Furthermore, Jones is discussing the service with several US mobile phone carriers, who could bundle ChaCha into calling plans for a small fee per month. The key behind ChaCha is a group of 8,000 temporary workers who hear the voice requests and quickly look for answers and send them back via the Internet or text message.

ChaCha users can also text message questions to the service.

The directory assistance market is estimated at almost $8 billion per year, with companies and carriers jockeying for position. Google's Goog411, Microsoft's Call 411 and the Jingle Network Free 411 have been battling for market share, but none of them let users ask broad questions like ChaCha.

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