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A9: The Future of Information Access?

  |  April 19, 2004   |  Comments

Amazon’s new A9 blends information and commerce into one seamless package.

So Amazon.com finally launched its super-secret A9 search engine.

So what?

OK. Maybe that’s flippant, but many people are asking why. Why would Amazon go into the search biz? And why would Google lend its results to a brand with as much (if not more) clout than it has, and with it the potential to suck users away from its main site?

A9 does serve up Google AdWords, so Google’s obviously generating some revenue from the venture. But if people start thinking "A9" or "Amazon" when they think of search, isn’t Google potentially losing market share?

Maybe. But that doesn’t matter. Let’s look at what A9 does.

First, A9 combines Google search with Amazon’s "Search Inside the Book" technology to provide a dual-information search. Users can find information on the Web and in books. A9 taps into the growing realm of research on how people search. It includes searcher-friendly features, such as search history, clicked-link history (including how long ago a link was clicked), and pop-up site info, accessible without visiting the site itself.

Best of all, users can download a nifty search toolbar that includes a diary feature for annotating Web sites. It can be accessed from any PC. Visions of Third Voice? Rest assured, the diary function is only accessible with Amazon login.

All this is nifty, but doesn’t reveal A9’s real potential. A9’s edge is its integration with Amazon, and what that sort of integration may mean to the search industry and the Web as a whole.

Amazon’s genius has always been rooted in search. With its millions of products, Amazon can’t work unless customers find what they want and (more important) products they never knew they wanted. If Amazon were just about selling things people looked for, it could look like Google.

It doesn’t.

Searching on the Web is about searching for information. Paid placement (and tacit consumer acceptance of it) is popular because people don’t always know what they’re looking for. Paid placements are, at their core, ads. They’re also considered a service by many consumers.

If you search for "earphones for airplanes" and don’t realize what you really want are "active noise canceling earphones" or "sound isolating earphones" (because you just want to listen to music without jet roar in your ear), a paid listing for a site selling those types of headphones isn’t just an ad, it helps your search. Sponsored links are prefiltered information that assists in product purchase.

People use the Web to find information, whether for business, entertainment, or personal use. Searching for products on an e-commerce site entails searching a predefined subset of information, prefiltered around a specific product set. But it’s still search.

We go online to find things. Amazon’s earlier decision to provide access to Web search alongside its integrated product search was a major recognition of that fact. Unlike those goofy "search the Web" boxes some sites use that take you off the site, A9 combines search in the digital (Web) world with search in the analog (book) world. Because A9’s Amazon searches can take you, literally, "inside the book," the search becomes a much more valuable a tool than simply searching the Web would have been.

Perhaps A9 is the beginning of deep Web integration with algorithmic Web search in a way that recognizes how people search.

It may also be Google’s attempt to rule information access in the same way Microsoft dominates the desktop -- a thought not lost on Microsoft.

Regardless of A9’s success, the new search engine probably represents the future of information access. It blends information and commerce into one seamless package. Moving beyond AdWords and in effect making the entire site a useful "adplication" (an app providing advertising benefits), A9 is one to watch... and potentially to copy.

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Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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