Directory Assistance

WhitePages Upgrades iPhone App

WhitePages is available across most of the major smartphone platforms, as well as at m.whitepages.com. Now it has "circled back" to the iPhone with an upgrade that does a few new things. In the business search realm, specifically, here are the new features:

  • Distance to a local business is included in the search results using the phone’s GPS
  • Auto-populated business categories and names reduce most searches to a few taps
  • More results displayed per search (an increase from 30 results per search to 300)
  • Sponsored Listings on the business results page
  • New look extending the WhitePages brand launch

WP iphone app 1WP iphone app 2

The sponsored results I observed were from Citysearch, although Whitepages works with mutiple partners.

Finally, here's a video showing the new iPhone app in operation.

New Tellme Client, Services Reflect Evolution of Voice Search

Tellme is one of the true incumbents in the "voice search" and automated directory assistance segement having been around for a decade. And two years ago to the day Microsoft acquired the company for just over $800 million, making it one of Microsoft's largest acquisitions. Today the company is announcing a range of improvements and upgrades to the underlying core speech technology and consumer-user experience that hold great promise: 

These advancements include the rollout of a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) carrier service that reduces customer transport costs, advanced speech services that improve automation of customer service calls, and a new "voice font" technology that delivers a more natural text-to-speech experience.

The new speech services are a result of collaboration between Tellme and Microsoft's Speech Components Group. These jointly designed technologies will be leveraged to advance natural user interfaces across Microsoft products to benefit billions of customers worldwide.

Because Tellme operates as an on-demand service, the new capabilities are immediately available to enterprises across Tellme's platform. In addition, Tellme is now using these technologies to power its mobile services, including the Windows Mobile 6.5 application announced today.

Much of this will play out in enterprise applications, which Dan Miller discusses in a forthcoming report. On the consumer side, Tellme is promoting a single button for voice-initiated calls, SMS and search:

The new service puts many of the most popular phone functions behind a single button. Windows phone users just press the side button of their phone to:

  • Send a text by saying "text" to open a text box, then speak the text message and send to call anyone in their contact list
  • Initiate a call simply by saying "call" and then the name of anyone in their contact list
  • Search the Web with Microsoft Live Search by speaking your request, such as "weather in San Francisco, California",
  • "Pizza in Kansas City" or "mother's day gift ideas"

We saw the demo, which was impressive, but we didn't have an extended opportunity to play with the technology. On the search front Tellme says that anything one can or would do "manually" with Microsoft Live Search on the mobile handset one can now do using voice with Tellme.

As the press release excerpt above indicates, Tellme will be "baked in" to Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.5 at a deeper (network) level. This is a potential differentiator for Microsoft Windows phones but it's not clear whether Microsoft sees the strategic value that voice search and the Tellme user experience bring to its mobile OS. 

When we were briefed Tellme presented data from a recent consumer survey that indicated a preference for voice as a way to initiate a wide range of lookups and actions, from making calls to looking up movie showtimes and getting driving directions. We have proprietary data that shows the same set of preferences in the abstract. But the abstract promise of voice has yet to translate into significant changes in mobile user behavior from our observations and tracking of the market. 

Tellme also cited Sprint's real-world experience with the Instinct and Tellme voice-powered Live Search as further evidence voice's potential to impact user behavior. The company said there has been impressive adoption and use of voice search on the Instinct. And we continue to believe that voice search (done right) has the capacity to increase usage frequency and deepen user engagment. 

Tellme and Microsoft of course have a range of competitors including Vlingo, Google, Nuance and others. That competition and the increasing emphasis on voice search holds great promise for the mobile user experience. 

However the proof of whether speech can deliver the kind of mobile UX we've been anticipating and writing about for some time is in the actual usability and accuracy of the consumer experience. But Tellme's novel, unified "call, text, search" approach and OS-level integration with Window Mobile represent a potentially significant evolutionary step in that process.

ChaCha Says It Answered 100Mth Question

ChaCha says it's answered its 100 millionth question in a Twitter post. The service is a hit with consumers and has produced some reportedly good results for advertisers; however like other services in this category it's still not widely known.

The company claims roughly 3.5 mobile unique users, many of whom search more than 20 times per month on the service. A substantial number of ChaCha users are under 25 according to prior company statements. 

Response rates to mobile ads on ChaCha were reported at roughly 5%. 

Verizon Integrates 411 with VZ Navigator

Verizon announced that it was integrating 411 with VZ Navigator in those instances when the wireless caller is a VZ Navigator subscriber. According to the release put out by Verizon it works as follows:

After using 411 Search to find a phone number or address, Verizon Wireless said its customers with VZ Navigator-capable phones can now have a Place Message with that destination sent to their phones, simply by pressing "1" when prompted. The customer can then use VZ Navigator to display the location on a map or navigate to that location. Connecting these two services means that details for a listing found with Verizon Wireless' directory assistance can be provided to Verizon Wireless' VZ Navigator location-based service (LBS) so that customers can access audible turn-by-turn navigation to their destinations, the company noted . . . 

Jon Wells, vice president for product development at Verizon, said, "We found that many customers were using the 411 service with the hopes of finding directions to that location, so we launched the integrated VZ Navigator with 411 Search nationwide to provide customers with a one-stop shop for listing information and directions. The service offers convenience and value while eliminating the need for customers to manually enter their destination information, especially when driving."

This is a novel tie-in between 411 and directions. We wonder if Google will do something similar for Android with the GOOG-411 service. (VZ Navigator functionality is provided by Networks in Motion.) 

Users will pay $1.49 (411) + their VZ Navigator subscription fees ($9.99 per month) for each use. As smartphones like the iPhone and Android start to offer improved turn-by-turn directions capabilities the market for subscription services like VZ Navigator will be diminished. Indeed, smartphones with GPS threaten the entire PND market over time. That's why Garmin has become a smartphone maker. 

ChaCha Secures $12M, kgb Pulls $250M IPO

ChaCha announced this week that it cut some staff and secured $12 million in equity financing. ChaCha has had great success with consumers but, despite strong ROI, most advertisers are still on the sidelines when it comes to mobile.

Nancy Hill, CEO of the AAAA, gave a keynote at last week's ThinkMobile event in New York. She was very bullish on mobile and presented some great case studies. She said in her prepared remarks that "mobile was top-of-mind for agencies." However, when I questioned her a bit more on that point, she acknowledged that the recession was delaying the adoption of mobile advertising and that many marketers and agencies were still not committed to the medium because it was "early." 

While ChaCha is a free service, rival kgb costs $.99 per use for consumers, in addition to any text messaging fees. kgb also doesn't have a voice front end because the firm is a directory assistance (DA) wholesaler to many US operators and doesn't want to compete with its own customers. However it operates the very successful "118 XXX" direct-to-consumer DA services in the UK and France. 

In New York I spent some time with kgb's Thomas Falconer and Bruce Stewart. In promoting the new direct-to-consumer text service in the US, the company is doing something very unusual: running TV commercials for and otherwise actively marketing it. For example, it was a sponsor of MTV's spring break and demo'd the service "on the beach" to young people in Florida.

I was surprised to hear kgb say that they found many people didn't know how to use the service and so they've made their messaging much more explicit. "Text your question to 542 542" (kgb kgb) is now the tag at the end of all the company's TV ads. 

Late last week, kgb announced cancellation of its planned IPO, given the recession. According to Reuters:

The New York-based company, which reported profits of $42.4 million on revenues of $649.2 million for the year ended Dec. 31, 2007, had planned to use the IPO proceeds in part to pay off debts, according to a regulatory filing.

The company said in a filing that it answered more than one billion requests for information in 2007 on the phone, by text message and on the Internet, and created the directory assistance services known as "The Number 118 118" in the United Kingdom and "118 218" in France.

ChaCha and kgb's services sit between directory assistance and search. You can ask any question, but there are humans behind the scenes to "disambiguate" and respond to queries. ChaCha has created a distributed network of agents who respond to queries; and recently kgb, which has historically used professional DA agents, acquired the UK-based texperts, which uses non-professionals to respond to user questions. 

There are a wide range of companies directly and indirectly competing with one another in the mobile search/DA segment. Most of the ad-supported/free DA providers are unknown to or little used by consumers, even call-volume leader 1-800-Free-411. Search engine use on smartphones is growing. But the majority (87%) of mobile handsets in the US are not smartphones. 

It is this majority segment of the market that ChaCha and kgb can address better than their competitors because of the DA-search hybrid model. For the moment, ChaCha is relying almost exclusively on advertising for revenue, while kgb is experimenting with advertising at this point but isn't dependent upon it for survival. 

ChaCha may need to consider a user-pays model if the economy remains where it is for awhile. 

Google Voice: Single Number, Free Calls, Voicemail Transcription

Google has rebranded and expanded its GrandCentral service as Google Voice. This is a dramatic announcement and, depending on the voice quality and reliability of the services, a potentially very big deal (think "next-gen telco"). 

We'll have a good deal more to say later. For now, here the services that Google Voice includes:

  • Call screening - Announce and screen callers
  • Listen in - Listen before taking a call
  • Block calls - Keep unwanted callers at bay
  • SMS - Send, receive, and store SMS
  • Place calls - Call US numbers for free
  • Taking calls - Answer on any of your phones
  • Phone routing - Phones ring based on who calls
  • Forwarding phones - Add phones and decide which ring
  • Voicemail transcripts - Read what your voicemail says
  • Listen to voicemail - Check online or from your phone
  • Notifications - Receive voicemails via email or SMS
  • Personalize greeting - Vary greetings by caller
  • Share voicemail - Forward or download voicemails
  • Conference calling - Join people into a single call
  • Call record - Record calls and store them online
  • Call switch - Switch phones during a call
  • Mobile site - View your inbox from your mobile
  • GOOG-411 - Check directory assistance
  • Manage groups - Set preferences by group

Here's my post at Search Engine Land
Here's the Google Blog post and more discussion on Techmeme
Here's Google's explanatory video

Google Voice is getting very positive reviews from those who've used it, including the NY Times' David Pogue.

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Related: Comcast now says it's the third largest residential provider of phone services in the US:

Comcast Digital Voice now serves 6.47 million customers, which exceeds Qwest’s reported residential subscriber base.  The popularity of Comcast’s innovative offerings with consumers has enabled Comcast to add residential subscribers in each of the last twelve quarters.

WhitePages.com Offers Improved Caller ID for Android

We had a very interesting wide-ranging conversation and update yesterday with WhitePages.com's Kevin Nakao. We discussed the success of the company's iPhone app and the movement of the business toward the previously announced "connectory" conceptual model.

Today the company introduced version 2 of its Android app. WhitePages.com blogs about the improvements and benefits:

  • More names to ID more calls, including mobile numbers! (This was our #1 request from users.) This means a better match rate.
  • Telemarketing alerts will flash during calls from known telemarketers. You’ll never have to take a research survey during dinnertime again!
  • Look up numbers on demand with the Reverse Phone feature. I use this all the time when people text me and I don’t recognize the phone number. And it’s great when you miss calls or want to update names and addresses on your phone without typing in a bunch of information.
  • Better connection handling and performance means faster Caller ID results.
  • A great new look and layout, including our new WhitePages branding and colors. You’ll be seeing more of this soon!

Here's a video that shows a demo of how it works.

There are free and paid versions of the apps (the improved version is paid). The paid app has many more numbers, among several other differences indicated above.

ChaCha Reports Continued High Growth

Mobile answers service ChaCha has enjoyed both high word-of-mouth adoption and high usage frequency. Privately, CMO Jay Highly shared a range of numbers with me at a previous MMA show that were very impressive regarding the frequency of the service's heaviest users. These rivaled PC-based search volumes. 

Now the company has put out an announcement based on recent Nielsen data:

In a head-to-head comparison between ChaCha and Google SMS, ChaCha achieved 70 percent of Google’s SMS search volume in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to data from the Q4 Mobile Messaging Report from The Nielsen Company. Of all SMS traffic measured in Nielsen’s report, which is comprised of all incoming and outgoing text messages, ChaCha is the seventh most trafficked service, quickly gaining ground on Google, Facebook, and Twitter. ChaCha now has more than 3.5 million unique mobile users in its first year of service. 

ChaCha sits between the "free DA" services, which have largely failed to take off into the mainstream, and mobile search. The ability to ask any question and the use of live agents differentiates the service from most of its competitors. 

DA provider kgb recently launched a similar SMS-based service, using distributed part-time agents, but without the voice input so as not to compete with the firm's clients, who are traditional DA providers. 

Android Adds Voice Search

Google has extended voice search to the Android platform via the new software update happening this week. According to CNET the Android version of voice search isn't quite as user-friendly as the iPhone version -- it requires you to press a button rather than simply holding the phone up to your head. 

Because it was trained on Goog411, which is only available in the US and Canada, Google voice search has difficulty right now with British (and other) accents. Here's what Google told us previously:

The acoustic model for Voice Search was trained, in part, by using data from GOOG-411 which has only launched broadly in the US. Since the acoustic model was trained using mostly American accents, the tool currently works best when receiving queries with American accents. While you can still download the Google Mobile App and turn on the Voice Search here, we've turned off the voice functionality by default when the app is downloaded from anywhere outside of the US. We don't have any specific launches to announce at this time, but we think this is exciting new technology and the speech recognition and understanding will only get better for other accents and jargon as we keep working on it

Google voice search on the iPhone was immediately popular and drove the Google app to number one among free apps shortly after launch. 

Round 4 for Jingle: $7.5 million

According to a report in Venture Beat, Jingle Networks, the company behind the first successful (relatively speaking) ad-supported directory assistance service, has raised a fourth round of funding: $7.5 million. Venture Beat says that brings total funding to about $82 million. However I suspect that's low -- I've lost count -- and that Jingle has raised more than $100 million to date.

Regardless the question is: where does the company go from here? It's possible that one of the big telcos will still pick it up. However AT&T and Verizon offer their own versions of the service -- although less well known. Yet Jingle's 800-Free-411 is itself not well known. Our research previously showed that the overwhelming majority (2/3 to 3/4) of mobile phone users are unaware of or have not used one of the free-DA services.

I asked Microsoft's Scott Howe the other day why the company wasn't promoting TellMe or Call-411 more aggressively as a mass market form of "local mobile search."

Jingle is reportedly break even or slightly profitable at this point. It's possible that the company could go public, which was previously suggested as a possibility, at some point in the future. However that's hard to imagine in this economy.

The market opportunity for mobile search services that don't require smartphones (e.g., 4Info, ChaCha, kgb, free-DA) is great. For the foreseeable future most mobile users will have so-called "feature phones." ChaCha has grown hugely through word of mouth. It's not clear that Jingle is getting any additional boost or call volumes from word of mouth at this point, although it did early on.

As a break even or slightly profitable business it can continue along for years. However the investors I'm sure want and expect more. 

Report: ChaCha Raising More Capital

Mobile answers and voice search provider ChaCha is raising more money ($30M) according to this report:

ChaCha Search Inc., a Carmel, Ind.-based search startup, has secured around $11 million of a $30 million Series C round, according to a regulatory filing. No new shareholders are listed. The company had previously raised around $14 million from Morton Meyerson, Bezos Expeditions, Rod Canion (founding CEO of Compaq) and Jack Gill (partner at Maven Ventures). It also had secured a $2 million grant from 21st Century Technology Fund.

ChaCha successfully reinvented iteself as a mobile company after a false start on the desktop. The company sits in almost a unique position in the mobile world, although DA provider kgb has recently started encroaching on its turf. 

ChaCha offers the broadly accessible platform of voice (and SMS) as an input mechanism -- like DA -- but the flexibility of search. Other "voice search" and free DA competitors are more structured and rigid in their approach and capabilities. Automated services such as Live Search Maps, Google Maps for Mobile and others aren't yet evolved to the point where they can compete with the human guides that ChaCha employs on the back end to answer queries. 

However that "distributed call center" approach is costly. 

ChaCha will be on the SMS/Text-based advertising panel at Internet2Go later this week in San Francisco:

Panel: SMS - Not Sexy but Voluminous
Americans now spend more time texting than talking on their phones. The monthly volume of mobile messages has now reached 75 billion -- with a "B." SMS is also device-independent and can be done on the more than 85% of the market constituted by feature phones. Yet most marketers and pundits appear to be looking beyond SMS to the "mobile Internet." Are they missing a huge opportunity? How should agencies and advertisers think about SMS and where it fits into a mobile marketing plan?

Speakers:

Zaw Thet, CEO & Co-Founder, 4Info
Jay Highley, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, Cha Cha
Greg Hallinan, VP of Marketing, Verve Wireless
Alec Andronikov, Chief Mobilizer/CEO, MoVoxx

Google's Dodgeball and Jaiku: The Mobile Roads Not Taken

As part of cost-cutting and internal focus and streamlining, Google is shutting down a range of under-performing, neglected or little-used services. These include:

  • Google Catalog Search
  • Google Notebook
  • Google Video uploads
  • Google Mashup Editor
  • Jaiku
  • Dodgeball

These are not the first products/services that Google has walked away from. However, the recession is making the company focus more on products and services that are more central to its objectives and abandon things that have emerged as diversions or are not as successful. 

Google acquired the "Twitter-like" Jaiku in October of 2007. Location awareness was part of the functionality of the "micro-blogging" service. Google never really developed the service or its potential. Now it says it will make the code open source for others to use and develop:

As we mentioned last April, we are in the process of porting Jaiku over to Google App Engine. After the migration is complete, we will release the new open source Jaiku Engine project on Google Code under the Apache License. While Google will no longer actively develop the Jaiku codebase, the service itself will live on thanks to a dedicated and passionate volunteer team of Googlers.

With the open source Jaiku Engine project, organizations, groups and individuals will be able to roll-their-own microblogging services and deploy them on Google App Engine. The new Jaiku Engine will include support for OAuth, and we're excited about developers using this proven code as a starting point in creating a freely available and federated, open source microblogging platform.

Google is also shuttering Dodgeball, which the company bought for an undisclosed amount in 2005. It was one of the first mobile-social networks but way way ahead of the curve. After Google brought the service it largely neglected it and others eclipsed it. Here's what the founders said when Dodgeball was acquired:

"We talked to a lot of different angel investors and venture capitalists, but no one really 'got' what we were doing -- that is until we met Google. The people at Google think like us. They looked at us in a "You're two guys doing some pretty cool stuff, why not let us help you out and let's see what you can do with it' type of way."

. . . And when they left in 2007:

It's no real secret that Google wasn't supporting dodgeball the way we expected. The whole experience was incredibly frustrating for us - especially as we couldn't convince them that dodgeball was worth engineering resources, leaving us to watch as other startups got to innovate in the mobile + social space. And while it was a tough decision (and really disappointing) to walk away from dodgeball, I'm actually looking forward to getting to work on other projects again.

There were many things that could have been done with these services, but weren't. At one time Google took what I've called a sort of "Darwinian" view of its products -- either they caught on or they didn't. The company generally allowed them to sink or swim without lots of centralized planning or promtion. There are of course high profile exceptions to this observation. But the approach was a part of Google's culture, which is now changing under the weight of recession.

I wouldn't argue it's "tragic" or unfortunate that these services are being discontinued, although Jaiku will theoretically live on. However it's an illustration that Google misses opportunities and is bogged down by some of the same "big company" challenges and inertia that affect others. It's also true that the mobile universe has evolved substantially since 2005 -- even 2007 -- and the company is now concetrating its mobile push on things like Android, the iPhone and porting its core services and search over to the "mobile Web." The company is building a kind of parallel universe in mobile.

SMS, though used by far more people than the mobile Internet, appears to be less of a priority for Google. For example, Google SMS search wasn't working last week for a number of hours; the company appeared to have a very casual attitude about the outage. (Imagine, by comparison, if Google's mobile site or app or its online search wasn't working for several hours.)

Whatever your attitude it's clear that both Jaiku and Dodgeball represent missed opportunities for Google in mobile.

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Apparently, the erstwhile Dodgeball founders are going to build a new version of the app:

So what's next? Well I don't know how many days we have left (30 days? 90 days?), but I've always said that it Google ever kills dodgeball, I'l build you guys a new one, so stayed tuned. (some of you know that me + Naveen have been cooking up some new stuff which is looking kind of hot). We'll hustle to get something for everyone to play with at SXSW.

kgb Completes Consumer-Facing Transformation

KGB, formerly InfoNXX, has completed its transition from a directory assistance wholesaler to a more consumer-facing "mobile find" provider. (This has been true in Europe for some time.) We've written about KGB's transformation a couple of times in the recent past:

Today the company formally launched its "multi-modal" mobile find (their characterization) services (Web, mobile, SMS). From the release:

Leading the way in the new kgb suite is its premium mobile text answer service, kgbkgb/542542. (www.kgbkgb.com) This launch follows the success of kgb's similar "Ask Us Anything" premium text answer service in the United Kingdom which demonstrates that consumers have a growing need for an always-available mobile service that helps them find accurate and timely answers and relevant information while on their mobile phone. kgb is also launching mobile web applications for Smart phones and the iPhone, a WAP site, plus an Alpha kgb Web service this year to further expand the suite of information services it will offer in North America.

Responses are provided by a mix of technology and humans. The latter category is moving to a hybrid between call centers and kgb "special agents," who are trained but non-professional responders. This is very similar to the ChaCha model and largely inspired by Texperts, which was recently acquired by kgb.

To get people used to the idea that kgb allows people to "ask any question" -- rather than just business listings information -- it offers a scrolling "ticker" of actual questions coming across its network, similar to what you see in some of the Google campus reception areas:

 kgb questions

The company's TV campaign is also convey this idea while at the same time "recruiting" for agents:

kgb campaign

Some of the kgb services are free while the SMS services will require consumers to pay and will also feature ads as well. 

Interestingly in the US there is no voice entry point for the kgb service, except through telco partners. For the time being the company has decided that on the "voice search" front it's not going to compete with its customers for whom it provides DA wholesale services. 

Evidence of Free DA Ignorance

I complained yesterday that none of the free DA services was taking advantage of the recession to publicize that they could save mobile consumers money -- or doing any marketing at all for that matter. Somewhere between 2/3 to 3/4 of the consumer public has never heard of or tried these services but they would if they knew about them. As evidence of this ignorance, here's a post that appeared on the website of the Hartford Courant:

There is supposedly a free directory assistance program that is run through Google and is accessible by your cell. I'm going to be checking it out some more to see if there are any unintended consequences.

In the interim, how many of you have heard of this feature --- and tried it.

This is probably not unrepresentative of the lack of knowledge of these services. Promotion isn't happening because there's either no revenue model or there are a range of other mobile search services (i.e., Google) or telcos (i.e., AT&T, Verizon) don't want to cannibalize their traditional DA services (read: cash cow). However the end of traditional DA will eventually come, so you might as well do some promotion and gain users or cede them to other services and competitors. 

kgb Running New Ads, but Where's Free DA?

We were on the phone with kgb yesterday discussing a range of things. And it occured to me: Where are the ads for the free DA services during the recession? Consumers are looking for ways to save money at every turn, yet no one has stepped up and run any sort of promotion: XYZ service will save you $1.75 a call. Jingle did a version of this in the past but touted aggregated consumer savings; it wasn't a direct consumer appeal. 

The recession and impulse to save money seems to me a perfect hook for building awareness for:

  • Tellme/Call411
  • Goog411
  • 800-THE-Info
  • 800-yellowpages
  • 800-Free-411
  • ChaCha

Of course advertising is expensive and companies are hoarding cash now. But what about even a viral campaign on YouTube?

Separately, kgb (which is a DA wholesaler and provider of paid consumer mobile services such as 118 118 in the UK) is running some clever TV ads to promote its broadening consumer services in the US.

 kgb ads

The idea being conveyed is that one can ask any question and get an answer, not just traditional DA business name and address lookups. This plays off the company's recent Texperts acquisition. The company is quickly moving into ChaCha territory. 

Stay tuned, so to speak. 

Social DA: Mosio Comes to Facebook

Last week we wrote about the acquisition of UK-based Texperts by DA provider kgb. We opined that this took the company (kgb) further into the realm of what I've called "social DA": distributed, real-time Q&A. ChaCha is a version of such a service. Mosio, which we wrote about a year ago, was also an early mover in the space.

Now Mosio has done something very smart; it's created a Facebook application that potentially greatly expands the reach of the service. Now you can potentially query your Facebook network on the go and ask specific or general questions:

Mosio on Facebook

This is also a logical path for Twitter to go down. 

It's fairly clear that there will be a number of services in the market offering a broad, recommendations function (Q&A) that transcends conventional mobile search and DA models. The only question here is how to best "monetize" these services. 

KGB Moves Further Beyond 'DA' with Texperts Acquisition

The idea of a distributed network of non-professional "responders" to a mobile question or search is one logical evolution of DA -- the original form of mobile search. In the past we informally labeled this concept "social DA." It's the marriage of search and social networking in a mobile context.

Mosio has tried to develop that model; ChaCha is working with a version of that model and, in the UK, so is the paid service Texperts. (Twitter may eventually develop this as well.)

Similar in many respects to ChaCha, Texperts uses a distributed group of individuals who must pass basic testing requirements. They're paid, as are ChaCha's guides. But unlike ChaCha, users pay for the Texperts service -- like traditional DA.

DA purveyor KGB this morning announced that it had acquired the UK based service: 

Texperts will deepen kgb's market strength and service capability for mobile text services. The success of both companies demonstrates that consumers have a growing need for the instant availability of simple, accurate and hassle-free delivery of information on their mobile phone. The acquisition will also enhance kgb's ability to build on the initial success of the company's text advertising program (www.118118advertising.com), launched in 2007 in the U.K., which enables advertisers to reach consumers via the medium of mobile text, a highly effective and cost efficient alternative to more traditional mass media.

It's not immediately clear whether the existing Texperts model will be retained (I'm assuming it will). But it's a fascinating thing to watch KGB (formerly DA wholesaler InfoNXX) evolve from a traditional DA provider to carriers to a consumer-focused, mobile search platform with ad support. 

Here are previous posts on KGB.  

ChaCha Scores with AT&T Deal

One could now argue that the reinvention of ChaCha is complete with the announcement of a strategic relationship with AT&T. Here's the deal:

As part of the agreement, ChaCha will use a co-branded greeting and promote AT&T when consumers call 1-800 2ChaCha (1-800-2-242242).

The two companies also will work together to further enhance ChaCha's free mobile-answers service and explore opportunities in both text and voice ad-based services. ChaCha will continue to provide free answers to any question -- anytime, anywhere -- to and from any activated wireless phone. Questions can cover any topic, from science to culture to sports and more.

ChaCha, which began on the Internet as a human-powered alternative to Google -- and largely failed to attract usage -- found its "voice" in mobile as a search engine and a simple and free alternative to conventional directory assistance. According to our discussions with the company, ChaCha continues to gain adoption and momentum. In some outlying cases the query frequency the company has seen exceeds -- remarkably -- the Internet's 80+ queries per user month (per comScore).

Waiting for Google Voice Search

We're still waiting for the Google app to update for voice search. Theories abound about why it hasn't yet been released. You can see the demo video on my personal blog Screenwerk. Here's what I wrote about it over the weekend after a conversation with Google's Mike Cohen and Gummi Hafsteinsson:

The first thing that is both intriguing and very different is that there are no buttons to push (although you can if you want apparently) to initiate voice search. Once the app is open on the iPhone you hold it up to the side of your head as though you were going to talk on the phone and simply speak the query. Search results then appear as they would if you had manually entered a query.

 Google voice search for iPhone

Google says it has learned tremendously from its experience with Goog411 but its desktop search query data is also contributing knowledge to the effort. These and other technical factors, beyond the scope of my expertise, will make the system more accurate that what has been possible in the past, said Google’s Cohen.

Beyond its reported accuracy, the usability of the system is striking. Most voice control on mobile handsets requires that buttons be pushed. There’s also often a “walkie-talkie” style experience, with the phone held out in front of the user to speak the query or command into the phone.

By removing the need to push a button and simply mimicking the experience and handset position of talking on the phone Google’s voice search may prove to be quite a bit more “natural” and intuitive. Another benefit for Google is that by having the phone’s receiver closer to the mouth of the person speaking the system gets a better, cleaner input.

After talking to Google I became hopeful that what Google is introducing will be a leap forward. If it indeed is we should see increased query volumes and longer query strings — and increased search monetization from mobile for Google. But all this will become more clear once the app launches -- hopefully today.

Verizon's Free DA Service Promotes Usage with Contest

Based on LMS consumer/mobile user surveys and other third party data, it's clear that most people don't know about and haven't used the free DA services such as Verizon's 1-800-THEINFO.

To remedy that general lack of awareness Verizon launched a contest to get users to call:

The information service 1-800-THE-INFO on Monday (Nov. 10) awarded six prizes for Rock My Room, a six-week promotion geared to college students. The free business-directory-assistance service, which offers thousands of local business listings to callers, offered prizes to six randomly selected callers who used the service between Aug. 14 and Sept. 30 . . . Callers to 1-800-THE-INFO could use the service as many times as they wanted daily, and one call each day from the same phone number was entered in the contest.

Typically, however, after the end of such promotions, call volumes fade. We'll see what happens here. 

More and more directory assistance calls are from mobile phones and free services have an opportunity to capture usage, provided they're promoted to consumers. Jingle's 800-Free-411, the market leader, previously "sold out" of its inventory and is either almost profitable or profitable, depending on whom you speak to. Yet even 800-Free-411 is not well known. (Jingle launched an audio ad network to increase reach.)

Many people appear from our survey data to know Goog411. But Google seems more interested in developing conventional mobile search where it can more easily monetize clicks than evolving Goog411 into an advertising vehicle.

Microsoft with Tellme and Call-411 has an opportunity to do conventional marketing and build consumer awareness, which could help the company in mobile search as well. However, so far, it has not seemed interested in spending money on awareness.