Social search engine ChaCha, which has struggled to gain traction and usage on the desktop, is introducing a new text-based mobile service called “textChaCha” (short code: 242242). The same human “guides” who provide assisted search on ChaCha.com answer potentially any question from mobile users. Accordingly, it’s broader and more flexible than free directory assistance (DA) alternatives such as 1-800-Free-411 or Goog411, whose value resides in the ability to access DA information for free.
Rather than a mobile search engine, textChaCha would likely describe itself as a mobile answer engine. What you receive from guides is a single answer to your query via text message. I tried the service over the past couple of days and found it to be generally very useful. It faltered a bit on directions but otherwise successfully answered a range of questions about museum hours of operation, restaurants, movie trivia, and weather.
There are two central challenges the service faces: 1) building awareness, and 2) gaining subscribers. Right now the service is free, but the company envisions a subscription model eventually. That will require ChaCha to prove itself beyond the capabilities of its free DA rivals and several others. Those who use the service and perform non-traditional queries will immediately see that textChacha is more flexible than the free DA alternatives. For example, ChaCha co-founder Brad Bostic told me that one can ask questions about the depth of the snow pack at a ski resort. There are many other such scenarios that could prove the value of the service to mobile users.
But awareness is perhaps the bigger challenge. Unlike in desktop search, textChaCha doesn’t have to compete with entrenched habits. But surveys that I’ve conducted with my colleagues at LocalMobileSearch indicate that roughly 75 percent of mobile users are either unaware of the free DA services or haven’t tried them. Partly this is because there’s been limited promotion of these alternatives. That said, the audience for the free DA services is roughly 60 million today and growing.
In addition to the free DA providers, there are some similar competitors: AskMeNow, Mosio and, in the UK, AQA and Texperts. More broadly, Yahoo Go, Google Maps/search, Live Search, and others offer competition.
Yet ChaCha has an opportunity to gain adoption and mindshare in mobile in a way that it has not been able to on the desktop. While the service will ultimately become “multi-modal,” its market entry as a text-based offering potentially reaches a much broader audience than would a WAP-based product.