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Internet

A hand-cranked engine

A new search engine harkens back to a time gone by, when research was powered the old-fashioned way: by human brains.

Think back to the days BTW--before the Web--when search engines were those people who sat behind library desks and reference counters and reminded you to be quiet when you made too much noise.

That's right. People.

In the race to make the Web manageable to the mainstream consumer, Bill Gross, chairman and founder of idealab, today introduced a new search engine that harkens back to those days gone by. Answers.com is powered not by the world's fastest bots or software but by engines we all have used at one point or another: human brains.

When you log on to answers.com, you can enter a question and for a fee--ranging from $1.79 for a simple question and $11.99 for a tough one to a customized price for a customized query--someone on the staff will actually research it, using online search engines, databases, and people. And they'll get back to you by email within 24 hours. That's the promise of the new "engine."

Answers.com will employ a staff of hundreds of freelancers who will get pinged or paged as the questions come in. In turn, they'll get paid a 20 percent to 50 percent royalty, according to Gross.

Gross said he started the company because he wanted to take the frustration out of searching. "I think that the information overload on the Internet has made search engines so inefficient now because they bring back too much stuff," he said. While some Web directories benefit from carbon-based intelligence to tell apples from oranges in search queries, Gross said he wanted to overcome the limitations of silicon-based intelligence. "I wanted to make the first search engine powered by human beings," he said, "not by an algorithm."