Sep 12, 2006

One Day Searchers May Quit Googling And Start ChaCha-ing

USA Today
By Kevin Maney

One Day Searchers May Quit Googling And Start ChaCha-ing

Coming out with a new search engine must be like coming out with a new ketchup.

Heinz makes the default ketchup - the dominant ketchup. Someone might make a "better" ketchup, but that's simply missing the point. The majority has bought into Heinz's style of ketchup, so Heinz wins.

Pretty much the same with Google (GOOG) and search. Microsoft (MSFT), Yahoo (YHOO) and others continually try to break Google's hold, but they can't.

Yet entrepreneurs keep building new search sites, sometimes with twists such as local search, video search, blog search or vertical search. These entrepreneurs are not dumb. They're not Don Quixotes. They're at least smart enough to get venture capitalists to invest millions of dollars in their new search entities.

So the collective wisdom of the marketplace, i.e. all the people and money chasing new search business, seems to be telling us something. It's telling us that Google is vulnerable.

Sure, Google seems prodigious. According to Hitwise, Google has 60% of the search market - coincidentally, about the same share Heinz has in ketchup. Google owns more computing power than some entire continents. Its stock is over $380 a share! So how can Google be vulnerable?

Scott Jones is here to tell me.

Now, normally I relish meeting yet another purveyor of a new search engine the way Prince Charming in Cinderella wanted to see another foot. But I figured I should see Jones.

In the 1980s, he invented the digital voice mail system now used by half a billion people. In the 1990s, he built the CDDB database, which feeds song info into iTunes and just about every other computer music player.

Plus, Jones is a character: a big bundle of bravado, testosterone and Einstein brains. He's got an indoor treehouse at home. He's based not in Silicon Valley, but in Indiana. Which, of course, makes him the Indiana Jones of technology.

He's lounging in a chair across from me, the top two buttons of his shirt unbuttoned, telling me what's wrong with Google. Yeah, it takes Google two-tenths of a second to show you a page of results, Jones says, "But on average it takes people 11 minutes to find what they want."

Jones doesn't cite a source, but from personal experience, he's probably right. Searching on Google is like going into Home Depot to find a single 2-penny nail.

Industry watchers agree. Google is broad, stiff and impersonal, and, "You have to learn how it hears. It doesn't learn how you talk," says Chris Meyer, CEO of Monitor Networks and author of several books on technology.

The ideal search site would be something more like the Librarian in Neal Stephenson's classic novel Snow Crash: "an intelligent, literate conversationalist who knows everything and its source," Meyer says. It would interact with you and guide you, not simply send an information dump truck to your front door and unload.

Interestingly, Jones is trying to head in the Librarian direction. His new search engine, called ChaCha, is an elaborate system that's supposed to route most searches through human "expert" searchers. These people are employed at home (or anywhere) by ChaCha in an Amway-like structure. Experts who recruit other experts get a slice of their recruits' earnings.

If you type "beagle" into the query box on ChaCha, you're supposed to see an IM-like chat box pop up with a live person asking whether you're looking for dogs, the Beagle computer worm, or Charles Darwin's boat. (All three appear on the first page or two of Google's results for "beagle.") The expert is then supposed to know how to find better and deeper information about your chosen topic, so you find what you need in less time.

I say "supposed to" because an experimental version of ChaCha was launched Monday, and it immediately crashed and was down most of Tuesday.

Anyway, efficiently shuffling millions or billions of searches among tens of thousands of experts will be "incredibly complex, and the underlying math is impressive," says analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group, who has seen a ChaCha demo. "But, yes, I think ChaCha could actually take a chunk out of Google."

How could ChaCha afford to pay experts to help with searches? The key is advertising, Jones explains. First, because users have to wait while an expert digs around for stuff, ChaCha can play a very targeted, valuable video ad.

And then, because the experts will know exactly what each user is looking for, ChaCha can serve up ads that hit their mark. Looking for a beagle dog? Ah! Here's a special from PetSmart.

Those ads "are worth two or three times Google's keyword ads," Jones says.

"Going after the advertisers will be a bit more difficult, but it's in that vector that Google can be hurt, and hurt badly," Enderle says.

That's also where other entrepreneurs think they've got a shot. Earlier this summer, I heard from TrueLocal, which asks not just what you're looking for, but where you're looking for it. Search for beagle and you'll find a local kennel or pet shop. Again, this helps better identify the user, so a more targeted - and therefore more valuable - ad can be served.

"Vertical" search only returns results in a specific niche, like gardening. Again, it helps define the user - you're on this site because you're into gardening - and makes the ad space more precious.

Google, of course, is smart, too. It's working on ways to better define users for advertisers and deliver more streamlined results. That's what Google Co-op, Google Local and even Gmail are all about. It's unlikely that anyone is going to blindside Google anytime soon.

But the point is, smart people like Jones are convinced there's a reason to try, and that ought to give pause to anyone who thinks Google is forever.

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