New Browser Takes on Virtual Reference

Cha-Cha ( is a new player in the ever-increasing browser field. 
Cha Cha’s edge comes from guided searches where the user partners with an actual human.  Cha Cha calls them Guides, and they are described as people who are “skilled at finding information on the internet and knowledgable [sic] on the subject at hand.”  Hmm…hopefully more so than Cha Cha’s editor.  (I’ve notified Cha Cha about their little faux pas).
Cha Cha claims that users who partner with a Guide “get the few exact results you want, not the millions of results you don’t.”  So, I decided to take them up on the challenge.

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  1. Have you tried it? I threw them a somewhat tough question to locate images of an artist’s work, along with the U.S. museums that own his work. The guide brought me back one site that only listed one piece, one site that was an auction record search (that wouldn’t tell me where the pieces had ended up without a subscription), and one site where one of the artist’s works was being sold. The guide offered to keep searching when I indicated that this didn’t work for me. I couldn’t resist closing with “Thanks, but I think I’ll go ask at the library…”.

    It’s not a bad idea, and the guides probably are more competent than most searchers. But I wasn’t terribly impressed with it as it stands now. If only we could “sell” virtual reference with co-browsing in a more effective way, librarians could corner this market before the search engines do.

  2. In less than two months some interesting things have been going on with Cha Cha. Greg Sterling last reviewed the service in November with some very interesting observations. Now we find out that the company will have some more money to boost their project. The question then becomes, can $6 million dollars buy a better social seach engine?

  3. Today I logged into OneStart, Indiana University’s Student Information Service interface, and noticed that a new search option has been added. In addition to searching Google, the IU webpage, the homegrown information technology database (Knowledge Base), and the online library catalog (IUCat) – Cha Cha is listed as well. Hmmmm . . .

    So, I did another search with a guide. The time I tried before I was never connected with anyone.

    I believe one of the major faults to be the lack of reference interview. Absolutely no effort was paid to find out more about what the searcher is *really* interested in. (In the case of Sterling’s interview, above, when this subject was approached it did turn into a philosophical argument, as Bryan points out)

    Also, of the 8 results returned by the guide, I would only feel confident about one of them being used in an undergraduate level research paper. Finally, my guide ended the chat rather abruptly – there was no follow-up in case I had further searching needs.

    I would say that further work is needed, and that as librarians, we need to continue to teach students good information literacy skills.

  4. Wow…that’s a pretty powerful endorsement of Cha Cha from IU.

    I would say that further work is needed, and that as librarians, we need to continue to teach students good information literacy skills.

    Absolutely! I think more and more searchers do not use critical judgment (either they have not been taught to look at information critically or they just accept “good enough”). A lot of the debate over convenience vs. quality has been discussed in library circles. The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) engages in this discussion (as well as many other salient points) in its various FREE publications.

    I’m of the opinion that we librarians are purveyors of information for the attainment of greater knowledge (from Britney spears’ song titles to deep philosophical inquiries). I am also of the opinion that universities’ primary goals are to be creation centers of new knowledge and to be training centers for new knowledge creators. Thus, I have severe reservations about a university that endorses a service that has, so far, produced marginal results. Moreover, most universities offer their own virtual reference services or they are connected to a virtual reference network like like Ohio’s Know-It-Now 24/7. IU does have its own virtual reference; however, it has limited availability. Could it be that IU is playing the convenience card–trumping their own in-house services?

    I believe that we librarians must be more proactive. Why have we not brought to market our own national/international service for guided searches? Why aren’t we more integral in the development of new information technologies? Why do we, OK…some of us, continue to embrace harmful stereotypes (e.g. the Nancy-Pearl-shushing doll)?

    Our failure as a profession has been our inability to think big & implement those big thoughts. Thus, we did not develop Google. We did not create And we did not invent LibraryThing. In the latter cases, our fear of letting go of our “command and control” policies led us to believe that our patrons were not sufficiently intelligent to be catalogers. In the case of the former, our tunnel vision made us believe our primitive OPAC’s (er…Telnet anyone?)were good enough for our patrons. Now the debate rages on about FRBR.

    We lack mobility and speed. Many times we must do so in order to preserve the data we’ve acquired. Many times we must do so because we are financially constrained. However, in this age of open access journals & open source technologies, we have the opportunity to financially unbind ourselves.* Moreover, we must create systems which preserve data while allowing us the flexibility to prototype new systems. I believe that, until we gain greater mobility & speed, we will always be one step behind.

    *I recognize this is a very simplified/idealistic statement. To be honest, it is late and I just don’t have the energy right now to argue this position. Kinda’ lame excuse, eh?

  5. I think you’ve argued your position very well, Bryan, and I think idealists have an important role in this world! I will respond to one small point. IU Libraries also have a virtual reference chat: Ask a Librarian. I can’t say that I’ve had much success with the virtual chat for tougher reference questions, but I did feel that there was appropriate opening and closure, and enough familiarity to make me feel comfortable (although my experience is probably much different than the average library user who has not seen the backend of the virtual chat and did not go to library school). It worked great when I was being lazy and needed help with a Chicago citation! I haven’t tried Cha-Cha — I wonder if its presence at IU is a library or an IT decision, or both. It is possible that they have trumped their own better services out of convenience or for some other reason (are there Cha-Cha lobbyists on campus?!).

  6. Mmacken,

    Thanks for adding the link to IU’s VR chat. I did mention it, but I did so very quickly. It is also only available –

    Monday – Thursday 8:00 am – 10:00 pm
    Friday 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
    Saturday-Sunday 1:00 – 5:00 pm

    And it is only available to the IU community. Ohio’s Know-It-Now 24/7 is publicly funded. So, it is available to anyone residing in Ohio. Still, Cha-Cha is international (as long as you know English). If we want to break past the illusion that all libraries are repositories and move into the much more current model of connectors, we need to look at providing services that address this model and are national/international in scope. This would mean collaboration between public & academic institutions, and it would mean looking at how we fund our libraries–not a light challenge given the diversity of local politics and professional cultures.

  7. LJ Academic Newswire has more news about IU Libraries and Cha Cha:

    Indiana U. Libraries, ChaCha Partnership Seeks to Add Human Touch to Web Search

    Indiana University (IU) has announced a “strategic alliance” with, an Indiana company that seeks to add a human touch to the web. Under the agreement, the IU/ChaCha partnership will incorporate the “collective knowledge and experience of the university’s library and information technology staff” into ChaCha’s new search engine architecture, which seeks to combine “machine-based search” with “skilled human guides.” The name ChaCha comes from “cha,” the Chinese word for search.

    ChaCha’s vision of “guided search” will offer instant results like traditional search engines, but will also incorporate human expertise to help users focus on the most relevant information. At IU, librarians, information technology staff, and others will serve as guides, available to help the IU community conduct searches through a live instant message chat interface. When IU students and faculty use the service, IU “guides” will vet and “vote upon the instant search results”, constantly improving them, as opposed to having results returned solely according to an algorithm. Guides will also be available for live chat. Under the partnership, IU and ChaCha will collaborate on several projects for the fall semester, and the ChaCha service already powers IU’s search portal. Patricia Steele, Ruth Lilly Interim Dean of University Libraries, added that the technology could extend the reach of librarians. “This platform will now help us push our expertise outside the walls of the library to where people are working,’ she noted.

    This is certainly a step in the right direction . . .

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