Teams Work: Social Search Gets Results

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Solving Participation Inequality
From social shopping engines, where consumers find and recommend best-in-class products and services, to collaborative resource sites, which rely on people to write or upload content for the good of the community, the human touch that makes social search destinations so appealing is also its chief handicap, argues Stephen Arnold, an independent search analyst and author. In his view, the over-dependence on human involvement automatically limits the scalability of social search sites. “Social search results can never be as comprehensive as the results from regular search engines,” Arnold says. “Websites mediated by humans are a hit-and-miss affair.”

Another problem is what Jakob Nielsen, a usability guru and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, calls the dilemma of participation inequality. As a rule, participation in the online world more or less follows a 90-9-1 rule, with 1% of users accounting for most of the contributions, 9% contributing from time to time, and a whopping 90% of users preferring to lurk in the background rather than make a contribution.

A prime example is Wikipedia, a textbook example of Web 2.0 technologies at work. Even there the 90-9-1 rule holds true. It counts 68,000 active contributors, which is a mere 0.2% of the 32 million unique visitors it counts in the U.S. alone. A closer look shows Wikipedia’s most active 1,000 people—that is 0.0003% of its users—contribute about two-thirds of the site’s edits.

In the case of social search, the vocal minority of hyperactive contributors can dominate the system, yielding results that are hardly representative of web users on the whole. How can participation inequality be overcome? “It can’t,” Nielsen argues on his site. “But it can be dealt with once we realize it will always be with us.”

Although participation will always be somewhat unbalanced, there are ways to equalize it. Promoting and giving prominence to worthwhile contributions will help to ensure people who only post when they have something important to say are not “drowned out by the torrent of material from the hyperactive one percent,” Nielsen says. Rewarding people for contributing can also broaden the participant base.

With the latter in mind, several people-powered search engine providers, including Mahalo, a company founded by web entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, are building—and paying—contributor communities to direct searchers to relevant results. The latest phase of the project, known as Mahalo Greenhouse, invites people with specialist knowledge to compile and submit a list of their top-pick search results on new subjects. Individuals are paid between $10 and $15 for each set of search results accepted by the team. In June, the team reported it had compiled results on 5,000 terms and was adding another 500 per week.

ChaCha, a breakthrough social search engine that went live last November, takes people-powered search a giant step further. Its “search with a guide” process lets stumped searchers connect with a live person in realtime via an instant message technology for a list of highly relevant links and results. These guides, who are picked and trained by ChaCha, can earn between $5 and $10 an hour, and the recent launch of a new “pay me now” option provides guides immediate access to their earnings through a ChaCha-branded debit card. To date, the company counts some 30,000 guides and is recruiting more at the rate of 10,000 per month. Revenue is generated by targeted text sponsored by Google and Yahoo! ad networks.

The Credibility Question
Patented technologies and processes ensure quality results, enabling guides and searchers to vote on and approve results. “Following the wisdom of crowds can lead to inaccuracies,” Brad Bostic, ChaCha president and co-founder says, referring to The Wisdom of Crowds, a best-selling book by James Surowiecki. The author argues that the combined intelligence and input of a random group of people can create optimum conclusions—a view that collides head-on with the problem of participation inequality.

To avoid delivering skewed results at all costs, ChaCha doesn’t simply rely on crowd-sourcing to bubble up the best results. “We leverage the masses to deliver credible results,” Bostic says. In August, ChaCha also formed an alliance with Indiana University, resulting in a first-of-its-kind academic search service. This new partnership will incorporate the collective knowledge and experience of the university’s library and information technology staff into ChaCha’s search engine architecture.

Moving forward, ChaCha aims to be a one-stop location for people-powered search across a variety of platforms and devices. To this end, the company has announced a distribution agreement with video search engine blinkx, a partnership that will provide users access to millions of videos that are relevant to their search terms. The company is also sharpening its focus on mobile devices, harnessing speech recognition technology to become the “full platform for search on any device at any time,” Bostic says. “People can tell us what they’re looking for and we’ll deliver the relevant results.”

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