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Review: ChaCha's Text-Message Search Engine

With no fear of the confusion that can arise from text-message shorthand, a new search service is employing a novel tool to answer queries sent by cell phones: human beings.

Having a person — rather than an automated service — field your questions while you're out and about is appealing in a range of scenarios: finding a recipe for banana pudding, settling a TV trivia dispute, locating a quality thin-crust pizza in a specific neighborhood.

And, as long as an answer can be found online, ChaCha promises that a "guide," reached by sending a text message to 242242 (CHACHA), will respond in an average of 3 minutes, though some answers take 10 minutes or longer.

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Except for a few kinks, ChaCha worked as advertised in the days before and after its Jan. 3 launch.

My query for a simple meatloaf recipe took 4 minutes to satisfy.

Questions such as "What is Scott Baio's middle name?" were answered within 2 minutes: "Scott Vincent James Baio was born in 1961."

ChaCha is free for now, but the company plans to start charging $5 to $10 a month, after 10 free queries, starting in the spring.

In contrast, Google's SMS service is free but can troll only for automated information such as phone numbers, stock quotes, currency conversions and weather updates.

ChaCha, based in Carmel, Ind., has about 5,000 freelance "guides" across the country and promises that at least 10 percent are logged on at any given time.

The guides can sign in whenever they want, but the company says it works out that at least 500 are always online.

ChaCha CEO and founder Scott Jones said that base of workers could be dramatically scaled up in a short time if needed.

Most of the guides are college students, stay-at-home parents or retired. They're paid an undisclosed fee for each message they answer, and they work whatever schedule they choose.

For the near term, ChaCha plans to split the fees it earns with cell carriers, although Jones would not disclose details and no carrier has agreed to a fee structure.

In the longer term, Jones hopes to eliminate user fees and earn money from advertising. The company will also roll out a voice-activated version of the service later this year.

Using ChaCha can be easier and faster than using a smart phone. But it faltered when more than one step was required to answer a question — like my request for directions to the McDonald's closest to my company's headquarters.

The directions, which came a few minutes later, started from the correct address, but sent me much farther away than the McDonald's right outside.

Plus, I didn't get an address for the restaurant, just a direction to head down the West Side Highway and, inexplicably, go "Left on Canal/Hoboken St." (there's no Hoboken Street in Manhattan).

ChaCha is better at answering more subjective queries, such as "Best thin-crust pizza upper w side."

Within 3 minutes, I got the name of a restaurant that was "said to have the best thin crust on the upper west side," accompanied by its address, phone number and Web site.

Even the humans sometimes have trouble with shorthand, however.

A follow-up question — "What is the x street and what time do they cls" — elicited a strange response:

"The x st is parallel to the y st and no, it's never closed! Keep doing the ChaCha!"

It turns out ChaCha wasn't ready to respond to follow up queries because guides couldn't yet see prior elements of a thread.

The company has since fixed the glitch so guides can see the full chain of queries from a particular phone number — and presumably understand that x street would mean cross-street.

When asked who the rapper Flava Flav picked to be his girlfriend on the first season of his VH1 reality show, the ChaCha guide on the other end seemed stumped.

After 13 minutes, however, the phone buzzed with the answer (Nicole Alexander, also known as "Hoopz").

ChaCha is a definite convenience if you don't have access to a computer. And it's fun to see — for free — how quickly guides will be able to answer random questions.

But it's hard to think of scenarios where such a service would be worth paying for, when services like Google's SMS provide the basics for free.