Human-assisted search

From Technology Review

The Web has grown orders of magnitude bigger since the founding of Google, and neither the company nor its competitors have come up with new automatic search algorithms as seemingly magical or game changing as PageRank. Now some entrepreneurs believe it’s time to replace the algorithmic search engine with humans.

ChaCha, a free advertising-supported service launched last year by former MIT AI Lab research scientist Scott Jones and software entrepreneur Brad Bostic, doesn’t exactly give up on the concept of computerized search. Web wanderers in search of answers are free to settle for the algorithmic results served up by ChaCha’s own search engine. But the site’s real calling card is its collection of 29,000 human guides, who earn $5 to $10 per hour working with users in live chat sessions to locate the Web’s best answers to their queries.

Web services that tap the brainpower of real humans are all the rage. Many now-familiar sites such as Digg and Wikipedia depend on the “wisdom of the crowd”–users who contribute, edit, and collectively rank information items. But newer ventures depend on individuals. Yahoo Answers, where anyone may submit a question and anyone else may respond, has proved immensely popular, attracting more than 60 million users (despite the varying quality of the site’s answers). More recently, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a marketplace where individuals can earn small amounts for completing “simple tasks that people do better than computers,” in Amazon’s words, has provoked much discussion among followers of the user-centered Web 2.0 movement…