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As for the guide program itself, ChaCha seems to attract earnest folk who have enough free time to search the Web on others’ behalf for minimum-wage pay, and enough of a Boy Scout streak to like it. “I enjoy working as a guide because I love to help people,” says William Holliday, who spends about four hours a day on ChaCha and has earned $900 since joining the site last October. “This allows me to do that without it taking too much time away from my family. I am able to set my own schedule.” Holliday even runs a blog dedicated to helping other ChaCha guides.

Not all of ChaCha’s 29,000 guides are as conscientious, of course. Jones says ChaCha’s engineers are looking for a way around the all-too-human problem of soldiering, i.e., guides who deliberately work below capacity. “I have had the same situation as you, where guides have left me on hold for 10 minutes,” Jones told me. “We call them ‘milkers’–guides who stay online just to get paid. We are trying to figure out a way to stop them, but it’s taking a bit of time because sometimes the problem is simply that the application has crashed on their end.”

Like any search company, ChaCha is ultimately in the business of selling ads, not search results. As soon as a guided search begins, the right-hand side of ChaCha’s results page fills up with Google AdSense ads related to the visitor’s search terms. Jones says the all-important click-through rate–the frequency with which visitors actually visit the links in the text ads, which determines how much ChaCha earns for displaying them–is “very good” at ChaCha compared with other sites. Already, ad revenues cover about a third of ChaCha’s major expense: payments to guides. “Once a majority of user experiences with a guide are favorable, we think the site will pay for itself,” Jones says.

If the company’s guides become more adept, positive word of mouth could send more users ChaCha’s way, especially for searches in which Google strikes out or users don’t even know which keywords will lead them to their quarry. The seeming strength of ChaCha’s operation is that its guides earn real money, and therefore–unlike contributors to Digg or Wikipedia or Yahoo Answers–have a vested interest in finding the best results. Its weakness may be that in an era of divided attention and instantaneous electronic self-service–when teenagers prefer three-minute YouTube videos to network TV and drivers pay hundreds of dollars for automated GPS devices rather than pull over to ask for directions–ChaCha’s guided searches move at an excruciatingly human pace.

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