Hoosier-powered search engine Chacha is turning to an unlikely source to fund its already cozy deal with Indiana University. Chacha is introducing Google AdSense ads to the university's search results. ChaCha already features both Google and Yahoo ads as sponsored links, on its public search, but until recently IU had a strict policy against advertising:
Remember ChaCha, the "human-powered" search engine based in Indiana with curiously deep — and poorly disclosed — ties to local power brokers? Now, Indiana University contends its decision to select human-assisted search engine ChaCha had nothing to do with those ties. University president and former ChaCha board member, Michael McRobbie, had nothing to do with it. Neither did newly appointed university trustee and Chacha investor and advisor, Jack Gill. The decision was made solely by the university's CTO Brad Wheeler. Oh, but never mind that Wheeler was appointed by McRobbie, his predecessor in the CTO post. A new Fortune profile of Chacha CEO and founder Scott Jones makes this telling of events even more suspiciously convenient.
Boosterism is a proud middle-American tradition, deftly parodied by Garrison Keillor. But even a fabulist like Keillor would be hard-pressed to come up with townspeople as self-satisfied and uncritical as the boosters of Bloomington, Indiana, who have stood relentlessly behind local search startup ChaCha. Despite the questions Valleywag and others have raised about a deal between ChaCha and Indiana University, whose president, Michael McRobbie, is a former ChaCha board member, the townfolk have stood steadfastly behind their local tech hero. Take, for example, the reaction to a story in the Indiana Herald-Times calling for "aggressive disclosure" (subscription required) regarding the deal. The conclusion was similar to ours and seemed obvious — but not obvious to at least one local booster.
Scott Jones, CEO of search engine ChaCha, has built a high-tech wonderland of a mansion in central Indiana to rival any abode in Silicon Valley. The 27,000 sq. ft. English country manor, selected by HGTV as the No. 1 home in America, melds old-world charm with a hardcore nerd's wet dreams. Amenities include the obligatory, and thoroughly geeky, automated lighting, air conditioning, and media systems controlled by touchscreen and a workstation sporting eight large LCDs (one of twenty-six computers in the home). Jones's playthings, however, don't stop with the typical high technology.
The Herald-Times of Bloomington, Indiana has followed up (subscription required) on our previous story questioning the Indiana University-ChaCha deal. The local paper's charitable conclusion: Neither side lied, but both independently made contradictory "inadvertent errors." As did the newspaper, in reporting on a new development — without pointing out the glaringly obvious ChaCha link. Newly appointed Indiana University trustee Jack Gill is not a full-time resident of Indiana, a requirement for trustees appointed by the Governor to the University — but he's also a venture capitalist and major investor in ChaCha (PDF).
In the comments to my piece raising questions about the deal between Indiana University and "human-powered" search engine ChaCha, PR flack Liza Dittoe says she'd like to point out some "errors." By which we assume she means her client's copious mistakes. Oh, but "inadvertent mistakes," she says. How exactly does a CFO and general counsel "inadvertently" make the mistake of signing and certifying as true a form being submitted to the SEC? Isn't it his job to be attentive to these matters? And how difficult is it to know whether or not someone's still on your board?
Indiana University's decision to partner with "human-powered" search engine ChaCha shouldn't have been controversial. ChaCha's based in Indiana and was founded by two IU alumni. Universities often have ties to local startups. Did anyone question Stanford's use of Google, or a professor's investment in the company? No, the controversy comes because no one actually believes that ChaCha is a better search engine than Google, and, more importantly, the partnership conscripts the university's library and IT staff into working for the search engine for free. And it's always the coverup, never the cime. In attempting to downplay university president Michael McRobbie's ties to ChaCha, university officials made the situation much, much worse. Someone's lying. It's just a question of to whom, and when.