A9.com and its companion toolbar offer the user much to smile about.
With little fanfare, Amazon.com subsidiary A9.com launched its long-rumored Google-powered search engine. A9 goes beyond Google with a number of unique options, including some very cool personalization features.
"What I’m building here is a very innovative company that has a mandate and a will to go and invent new technologies," said Udi Manber, president of A9. "We’re concentrating on new user interfaces, personalization -- different ways to get people a better user experience."
So is Amazon taking on Google? Will it become a major search player?
"Our job is to concentrate on e-commerce," said Manber. "Our goal is to experiment with all kinds of technologies. We want to get feedback from users to see how they like certain features, and then implement that as e-commerce search."
E-commerce may be the focus, but for now A9 is essentially a general-purpose Web search engine with some interesting and useful new features.
Like Google, A9’s interface is sparse. There’s a large search box and a few of the usual links for additional information. That’s where the resemblance ends, despite A9 search results being Google-powered.
Featured prominently below the search box is: "Search History." Amazon customers can sign in with their user names and passwords. The search history box then tracks all searches performed on A9. To run a search again, simply click its hyperlinked terms.
Unlike search history features in Internet Explorer, the Google toolbar, and elsewhere, your A9 search history can be edited, allowing you to remove sites you don’t want displayed.
Result pages also contain interesting features. In addition to Google-sponsored links and results, there are two additional panes: book results and search history. Clicking the "open" link for either opens the panes.
Book results are from Amazon and include "search inside the book" results, allowing users to view scanned pages from printed books. Manber says Amazon has over 120,000 scanned titles, with more added each day.
Search history is identical to what’s displayed on A9.com’s home page. Both panes are easily closed and can be resized simply by dragging the vertical line to the left of the pane.
Another cool feature is a label to the left of the URLs in search results showing whether a user’s viewed the page or not. Unviewed pages are labeled "new," viewed pages display the last time you clicked the link. This is incredibly helpful for those doing lots of searching and who can’t remember all the pages visited for a given search.
Another interesting results feature is the "Site Info" button. A mouseover triggers a pop-up window with information about the Web site, provided by Amazon subsidiary Alexa. It includes traffic rank, number of sites that link to this site, speed, and how long it’s been online.
The collaborative filtering process Amazon does so well with products on its own sites exists here, too, "connecting the dots" between users. "People who visit this page also visit" shows the top three sites Alexa toolbar users also visited.
For the time being, A9 doesn’t use this collaborative filtering to influence or alter Google’s results, though it may in the future.
A9’s feature set for this beta release is somewhat limited. Gary Price wrote an extensive comparison of basic Google features lacking on A9. It’s not a Google substitute for power searchers -- not yet, anyway.
The A9 Toolbar
I must admit I groaned when I saw A9 offered a toolbar. Not another one! I’ve been uninstalling toolbars lately. They increasingly encroach on my browser’s Web page viewing area. But A9’s toolbar provides all the functionality described above, with a couple of other useful features.
A9’s toolbar has the usual default features: highlighting search terms; a pop-up blocker; the option to search the Web, the current site, Amazon, a dictionary or thesaurus, the Internet Movie Database, or Google (providing quick access to Google’s full functionality, not yet available on A9).
The toolbar also gives users one-click access to their histories -- both search history and all visited pages.
The coolest feature is "Diary." Click the button and a small window opens at the top of the page you’re visiting. Type a note to yourself about the page, and it’s automatically saved, reappearing whenever you revisit the page.
"It’s very easy for you to leave notes on sites," said Manber. "If you ever come back to the same site, it’s there for you."
Better, all diary entries are automatically saved to a Web page. If you compile listings of sites, it’s the easiest, quickest way I’ve seen to build your own, Yahoo-style directories. Simply select "see all diary entries" and the page is displayed. You can edit the source for this page with any HTML editor to build your own resource pages with Web site listings and descriptions.
"A lot of people have tried it, but we believe that we’ve found the right way of doing it," said Manber.
Search history information is stored on A9’s servers, allowing users to view past searches and viewed pages from any computer once their logged in to A9. "We’re just giving you more power to remember what you’ve done and be able to manage that," said Manber.
Server-side search activity storage has sparked some privacy concerns, though nothing like the frenzy swirling around Google’s new Gmail service.
A9 says it can correlate information from the search site, the toolbar, and other Amazon-owned sites. "Among other things, A9.com and Amazon.com use this information to customize, personalize, and otherwise improve the services they provide to you," reads the toolbar’s conditions of use.
Given the usefulness of the tools A9 provides, I personally have little problem with my information being stored and used this way. I’m a long-time Amazon customer and always found the company to provide excellent service and abide by its policies.
Making Search as Reliable as E-Mail
Manber is critical of the current state of search, saying there’s lots more work to be done before it becomes as reliable as email.
"If you send email, you expect email to get there, and there’s no mystery," he said. "Search is much more difficult, but you still expect things to happen, and we’re not there yet. Obviously search is not the same as email -- it’s much, much more difficult. We’re still far from satisfying most users most of the time. We want to remove the frustration. We want to make it more intuitive."
Despite a limited feature set in this beta release, A9 has some powerful features and bears close watching for future developments. "We’re experimenting with several different technologies," said Manber. "Search is not in its infancy, but it’s also not very mature, and we want to be at the forefront. We want to invent new things, and this is a way for us to experiment with them."
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In addition to being Associate Editor of ClickZ's sister publication, SearchDay.com, Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to Online Magazine, EContent, Information Today and other information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was About.com's Web Search Guide.
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