Monday, January 26, 2009

Got a Question? Ask K.G.B. Agents for the Answer

Let’s say you were lost in downtown Washington, D.C., and needed directions to the closest train station. Or you wanted to settle a bar bet on the average lifespan of a dolphin or whether it’s Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson on the two-dollar bill. Would a specific, accurate and rapid response from a human researcher be worth 50 cents?

Bruce Stewart, the chief executive of mobile and digital for kgb, hopes so. The New York company, which has been providing directory assistance services in the United States and around Europe since 1992, this month unveiled a human-powered mobile search service called kgbkgb. If you send a question via text message to kgbkgb (or 542542), a human “kgb special agent” will find the answer and text it back. (The company’s name is an obvious play on the name of the former Soviet Union’s intelligence agency, known by its Russian initials, KGB.)

“The mobile browsing experience is getting better, and text is on a significant upswing and adoption curve in the U.S.,” said Mr. Stewart, who estimated kgb and its subsidiary companies answered a billion voice and text queries last year. “It was very natural for us to move from a strong position answering voice information calls into mobile apps and the Web.”

Response times varies depending on the difficulty of the texted question, but a typical turnaround ranges from two to four minutes. A test question — “How many Oscar nominations did “The Wrestler” receive for the 2009 Academy Awards?” — was answered accurately in three minutes.

Kgb will have to compete with free mobile-based search services that don’t charge fees beyond standard messaging rates. For example, sending a search query for local addresses, weather reports, directions or work definitions via Google’s SMS service, returns results in a text message. Yahoo’s Mobile Search also offers cellphone users the option of texting inquiries for information like restaurant addresses, celebrity news, sports scores and movie reviews.

In addition, there’s ChaCha, another two-way mobile texting service that funnels queries to a team of human experts and allows users up to 20 freebie queries per month.

Mr. Stewart, who helped roll out Yahoo’s Mobile Search before leaving in 2008 to join kgb, is hoping to carve a niche out for kgb’s mobile service by placing a heavy emphasis on precision and accuracy for cellphone users who may not be equipped with a smartphone or are in too much of a hurry to browse for answers on their mobile Web browser.

“If you need a precise answer in minutes, you don’t want to hunt and navigate to find it,” said Mr. Stewart.

The company relies of a team of experts who work primarily from home. Kgb agents, which Mr. Stewart says number in the thousands, are first vetted with a series of trivia questions and then interviewed to pinpoint particular areas of expertise, such as language proficiency, geography, film awards or pop culture. Incoming questions to the service are analyzed and categorized by topic and routed to the appropriate person.

The idea is that someone who already has a working knowledge of food chemistry might be more adept at quickly researching suitable substitutes for eggs in a crème brûlée. For popular topics that have already been fielded –- such as inquiries about Sarah Palin or Barack Obama –- incoming text questions can be matched to previously answered queries for an even quicker turnaround.

In addition to the mobile texting service, kgb is currently working on versions for the Apple iPhone and the Web.

No comments: