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For organizations trying to outdo conventional search methods, the difficulties are many. In the ideal case, according to Jones, a visitor to ChaCha enters a question or keywords, clicks the “Search With Guide” button, and is quickly routed to a guide with expertise on the general area of the visitor’s query. The guide may go straight to work or may send instant messages helping the visitor narrow down the question. As the guide locates Web resources, links appear on the users’ screens. Depending on the usefulness of the results, the visitor can rate the guide’s performance as “bad,” “OK,” or “great.”

But in reality, there are complications. Sometimes these are purely mechanical. In my own visits to ChaCha, I sometimes lost communications with my guides, as if our connections were cut or the guides had simply wandered away. Other times, guides gave up and forwarded me to other guides, who forwarded me to still other guides. And on average, my sessions with guides lasted 10 to 15 minutes and produced about five links. At Google, that’s enough time to locate thousands of links.

Of course, the hidden cost of using Google or any other algorithmic search engine is the time one must spend sifting through page after page of results. ChaCha’s guides, by contrast, are instructed to point visitors to just a handful of Web pages with the most precise answers to their questions. But here, too, ChaCha’s performance is mixed. In one guided search, I was looking for information about the rates that big Web companies like Google and Yahoo pay to Internet service providers for network access. The guide sent many of the same links I had already discovered in previous Google searches–leading me to suspect that the guide, too, was simply using Google. In another search, I wanted a list of Frank Gehry buildings currently under construction around the world. The third link sent by the guide turned out to be exactly what I needed–and I’m certain I would never have located it on my own.

Jones says the company is working to correct technical problems and make the “magical experiences” more common. For one thing, it’s improving the special software that guides use behind the scenes to tap the Web. The latest version of the application, which is being introduced to guides this week, gives them access not only to a range of conventional search engines and article archives, but also to the so-called deep web–the hoards of information stored in databases that aren’t crawled or indexed by the conventional search engines. “If your question is about robotics, our guides might direct you to NASA’s databases,” Jones says. “If it’s about medicine, it might be NIH [the National Institutes of Health] or CDC [the Centers for Disease Control].”

The new application also lets guides bookmark the proven information sources in their areas of expertise, and it will show those bookmarks to other guides helping visitors explore those areas. The results of every successful guided search, moreover, are loaded back into ChaCha’s conventional search index so that future algorithmic searches on the same subjects include “human-touched” results, as Jones puts it. As the number of completed searches and experienced guides increases–the company is recruiting guides at a rate of 10,000 per month, Jones says–the quality of ChaCha’s index should rise.

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