A class of mobile “help” or “answer engines” has arisen as an alternative to traditional search engines. They hold out the promise more efficient, relevant or direct responses to queries than search engines can provide on the small screen. In several cases they involve the use of live human agents or a community of users to answer questions. Examples include Aardvark, ChaCha and kgb Answers. This “community answers” capability is also nascent within Facebook and Twitter.
Also in this category is the yet to launch “personal assistant” Siri, which taps artificial intelligence rather that real people and is starting on the iPhone but will extend to the PC as well.
ChaCha, which is free and ad supported, can accept text or voice queries and provides a text response back. It uses part-time human agents to answer questions. ChaCha began life as a “social search engine” on the PC and morphed into text-based mobile answers service. More recently the company launched mobile and online coupons to diversify its revenues.
Competitor kgb is also text-based but today launched iPhone and Android apps that offer a game-like experience around the core answers offering. Its model requires consumers to pay $0.99 per question and it doesn’t have ads. However the iPhone and Android apps provide access to a range of features and content for free.
Mosio was also an early entrant in this segment but has shifted its focus somewhat to the enterprise market. It still maintains a mobile answer community however.
There are and have been many “Q&A” sites on the PC, exemplified by Yahoo Answers. There are also numerous “social search engines.” They’ve had varying degrees of success but are not widely regarded as true alternatives to Google, Yahoo or Bing. However on a mobile device, where there is less screen space and less patience, there is an opportunity to develop a differentiated offering. Accordingly, these mobile answers services are more directly — or by default — positioned as alternatives to search engines. And consumers may be willing to consider them.
I recently did an informal comparison of a number of these services and Google and found that there was no clear winner; each had strengths but none emerged as a clear victor. Yet these mobile, human-powered competitors must provide a richer, faster or more engaging experience than conventional search engines more generally if they hope to succeed over the long term.