Amazon Takes A9 Out of Beta

  |  September 15, 2004   |  Comments

UPDATE: The e-commerce company raises questions about its search ambitions with a site that boasts several new features.

Amazon.com subsidiary A9.com today launched its A9 site and accompanying toolbar, adding new features to the search service that has been in beta testing since April.

New features added today include image results, movie results, and reference information. The company has also added a Discover feature, still in beta testing, which presents the user with recommended sites based on their own surfing history as well as different views of their history, such as most-frequently visited sites. A new toolbar function, called Lists, enables users to keep lists of search results or other links handy for easier browsing.

"It's a better way for you to organize your information and access it," said A9's CEO Udi Manber. "The mandate for A9 is to be a search technology company -- to invent and innovate in the search space, and to look at the broad sense of the search problem. We think that search is just starting, and there are a lot of things that can be done. We want to be in the position to invent the new breakthroughs."

Manber is keeping specifics of A9's plans close to his vest. He would not comment on future applications of the A9 technology, either at Amazon.com or elsewhere, but he noted that as a subsidiary of Amazon.com, A9 will certainly take things it learns about search and apply them back to Amazon.com's site. Already, when users search the Web at Amazon.com, they are taken to an A9 results page.

A9 also shares Amazon.com's focus on the customer experience, he said. "It's the number one thing they always look at. As an Amazon subsidiary, we're doing the same thing: we're looking at search, looking at customers, and trying to figure out how we can improve their search experience."

The beta product had already allowed a user to maintain a search history, store personal notes about a site with the diary feature, get more information about sites, and manage bookmarks.

"They've added some things to make it even stickier. The new features are nice, they're things you wish the regular search engines would offer -- and they probably will in short order," said Danny Sullivan editor of Search Engine Watch. "They're incremental improvements, but they're welcomed."

A9 search results come from five information sources: Web and image search provided by Google; book text from Amazon.com's Search Inside The Book; movie information from the Internet Movie Database; and reference information through GuruNet.com. Additionally, A9.com returns results from the user's own history, bookmarks and diary. Advertisements, which appear at the top of the Web search results, come from Google's AdSense advertisers, through a deal the companies signed in April of 2003.

A9 also uses Amazon.com's Alexa division to show site information like the site's traffic, sites that link to it, and a list of related sites. A9 uses collaborative filtering to return pages that may interest the user, similar to how the Amazon.com site uses the process to point people to products that "customers who bought this book also bought". Additionally, when a user repeats a search, links he clicked on the first time around are tagged with a time stamp, such as "Clicked 7 hours ago".

Many of these features have been tried in one form or another before, Sullivan said. For example, a series of bookmark management services came and went in 2000, and MSN had a saved search history feature in 1998 or 1999, but they took it down when not many people used it.

"We've seen things like this in search the past, but they didn't last long on any of the major search engines. It's not revolutionary, but thank goodness somebody is bringing this forward on a major service," Sullivan said.

These personalization features are considered to be the beginning of the possible features A9 intends to offer, which could raise privacy concerns for some. A user's A9 login information, along with search and click history, can be tied to a user's history on Amazon.com. Users with privacy concerns can use an alternative site at generic.a9.com, but they won't get some of the more advanced personalization features.

A note in all caps toward the top of the privacy policy spells it out pretty clearly: "Please note that A9.com is a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon.com Inc. If you have an account on Amazon.com and an Amazon.com cookie, information gathered by A9.com, as described in this privacy notice, may be correlated with any personally identifiable information that Amazon.com has and used by A9.com and Amazon.com to improve the services we offer."

Manber said the Amazon is not currently using the information gathered from A9 on the Amazon site, but he declined to comment on any future plans.

"We have a very clear privacy policy. We put a lot of effort into writing it as clearly as possible, in words that everybody can understand. We're doing several things in that area," Manber said.

Privacy initiatives include the availability of a full, non-personalized version of the site at generic.a9.com, as well as the ability to turn off or edit the site history feature in the toolbar.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kevin Newcomb

Kevin Newcomb joined ClickZ in August 2004, covering search marketing and other online marketing topics. He has been reporting on web-based businesses since 2000.

Before the bubble burst, Kevin was a marketing manager for an online computer reseller, handling copywriting, e-mail marketing, search marketing and running the affiliate program.

With a combination of real-world marketing experience and years of business journalism, Kevin brings to ClickZ a unique ability to deliver news and training materials that help online marketers do their jobs better.

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