Amazon.com's A9 division is beta testing its own search portal at A9.com, a move that places a new player in the search game and begins to explore the boundaries of personalization.
The site, and its accompanying toolbar, pull together various elements previously available on Amazon.com in a unique way. Data comes from partner Google, the Amazon.com site and its Alexa division. Three separate columns of results include natural search results, book excerpt results from Amazon's "Search Within A Book" and the user's history. Personalization features, which use the Amazon.com login and cookie, are probably the most revolutionary part of the offering -- not because of their current form, but because of their potential.
A9.com is the first public endeavor of the e-commerce company's subsidiary, also called A9, which is run by search luminary Udi Manber. The company says it plans to develop search technology both for Amazon itself, and for unspecified types of third-party sites. (A version of the A9 search, complete with personalization, already appears when users do a Web search on Amazon.com.) Although Google is a partner, A9.com's launch places Amazon in a very interesting position in the ultra-competitive search market, now dominated by Google and Yahoo It's a new standalone destination for search -- one with a built-in mechanism, Amazon.com, to drive plenty of traffic.
"This reflects Amazon.com's ongoing evolution from being an online bookstore or retailer to being an technology services company," said Alison Diboll, a spokesperson for A9. Diboll stressed that the site is a test, adding that its creators hope to get lots of user feedback.
The home page is clean and uncluttered, offering a one-box, no-tabs search experience. Searching returns three columns of results.
The left and main column return Google algorithmic results along with AdWords listings -- two at the top of the algorithmic results, and two at the bottom.
One difference from Google is the addition of a "site info" button beside each listing in the main results. Users who mouse over get more information from Alexa, such as the site's traffic, sites that link to it, and a list of links that shows where else people who visit the page hang out on the Web. It's titled "people who visit this page also visit:" That language is very similar to that used on Amazon.com's own site. "Related sites" information is gathered through usage of the previously available Alexa toolbar, a product that clearly served as the model for A9's own toolbar. 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".
The middle column, which can be opened or hidden away, shows results from Amazon's "search inside the book" feature, displaying excerpts from books in which the keywords appear. Clicking on those links takes users to Amazon.com pages that display a digital image of the page on which the book appears.
The third column, which can also be hidden, displays the user's search history. Users who don't log in or choose to use the non-personalized alternative, generic.a9.com, forgo the search history, a visited sites history, and other personalization features.
While these personalization features are modest, they open up the door to a variety of other possibilities. Because the login information, along with A9 search and click history, can be tied to a user's history on Amazon.com, the company could conceivably begin to personalize using past purchase information, surfer behavior on the Amazon site, and a user's ratings of products (or sites), not to mention people's names (already used on A9.com when someone signs in), addresses, and credit card data.
"These [existing features] are just the first few things that they are rolling out among the personalization features that they are trying to do," said Chris Sherman, an editor at ClickZ Network site SearchEngineWatch.com who spoke with A9 about the effort.
In an environment of heightened awareness about privacy brought about by Google's announcement of Gmail, the A9 offering is likely to raise some eyebrows. While people are accustomed to being tracked and sharing personal information on an e-commerce site, like Amazon, the prospect of that information being used on a search engine may be more controversial.
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Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.