Questions for Amazon.com’s Barnaby Dorfman, VP of A9

“We want to create a detail page for every business in America.”

That’s how Amazon’s Barnaby Dorfman, who led development for A9’s yellow pages, describes the retailer’s experiments in local search — efforts that hold great promise for local businesses eager to market themselves online.

A9’s yellow pages effort is multifaceted. It includes business data from Acxiom, click-to-call support from eStara, and a unique “Block View” visual feature. The latter was created through the deployment of a small fleet of GPS- and camera-equipped Amazon trucks, which obtained storefront images the e-commerce giant later attached to business detail pages.

A9’s services are currently offered free to consumers and small businesses. However, the engine displays Google AdWords listings both on search results and its company detail pages. Dorfman said direct ad sales may even be in the cards. For now, it’s all about building value that may eventually be worth charging for.

ClickZ caught up with Dorfman at the Search Engine Strategies conference in New York last week.

Q.How can small businesses use A9’s yellow pages and the visual detail pages?

A.We’re encouraging businesses to provide information to us. The yellow pages industry has a problem of data becoming stale. We’ve created an interface that allows businesses to visit the site and update that information directly on the site. In addition to making changes, they can add a link to their site. Businesses can also upload their own images, pictures of the menu, marketing collateral, whatever they want.

With the click-to-call service, consumers can either talk using their PC or we can do a third party call. It’s all about reducing the friction.

Q.What do you see as the value to consumers of the visual component?

A.Through these images you can see the parking situation. You can see adjacent businesses. You can even read the signs in many cases.

I live in California but grew up on Upper West Side. It’s fun to look at the butchers in the old neighborhood. It gives you this palpable sense of nostalgia. We believe the 47 million customers who shopped with us in the last 12 months will find value in this.

Q.What’s the monetization strategy?

A.We have [Google AdWords] sponsored links on detail pages and on search results. It’s something we’ve been doing for a while on book detail pages and [now] on A9.

Q.Any plans to charge directly for leads or the click-to-call service?

A.We don’t have any plans right now. We’re still in beta. It’s a new space for us. It’s a new space in general. Our strategy is to create a great experience. As value is created, we’ll explore how to share (revenue) and then worry about monetization once the value is there.

Q.How are you planning to grow the user base?

A.We’re at a point where we’re pretty good at converting traffic generally. Critical mass is definitely a challenge in this space. One of the things we’ll be leveraging is that our customer base corresponds pretty well with the average small business owner in America.

The other thing we have is our affiliate network. Over a million Web sites are associates to Amazon and drive traffic to Amazon. There are 850,000 active seller accounts on Amazon. You’d be pretty hard pressed to find a bookstore that doesn’t sell books through Amazon.

Q.Can you describe the development process?

A.We don’t get into our development process too deeply. We had some of those “wouldn’t it be cool if we could…” conversations. And that’s what Block View came out of. It started with a handheld video device and a handheld GPS. It evolved to a much more sophisticated system.

Nobody ever said you have to go out and take a bunch of pictures. Sometimes you have to go out on a limb. [We foresee a progression] similar to what happened with searching inside books. It started with just being able to see the cover. Then you could see a few more pages, then search inside the book. We’re hoping for the same trajectory here.

Q.Are you letting active sellers know how they can leverage the yellow pages?

A.We’ve reached out to some of the larger sellers, and we’re helping them get a better sense of how they can promote their stores in the yellow pages.

It’s not entirely a new space for us. We do a lot of in-store pickup. Those folks have been selling through the Amazon site and have foot traffic as a result. We still have a lot to learn. We think it’s a very big space, and there’s room for a number of players in the space.

Q.What’s your personal history with Amazon?

A.I started in 1999, as part of an acquisition of a company called Exchange.com. I was the general manager of bibiliofind.com, a source for mostly antiquarian books spread all over the world. I went to IMDb, also an Amazon subsidiary, where I created IMDb pro, a subscription version. From there I moved to A9.

I ran a chain of small groceries in a prior career. Part of the reason I’m passionate about this project is I know what a struggle it is to pay the bills and keep the operation going. There aren’t a lot of tools out there to help them promote themselves easily.

Q.What’s most interesting to you about the new products?

A.There’s some interesting stuff happening on Flickr around the visual yellow pages. It turns out if you take 25 million pictures, a few of them turn out to be pretty artistic. Some people have gone and collected a few of the interesting images: Ghery buildings, the naked cowboy in Times Square. If you go on Flickr, A9local is the tag people are using.

I’m just excited to be working in search and in the space. I enjoy the innovation, and I think a lot of value is being created for consumers.

It’s exciting for small businesses too. They get pretty excited when they feel they finally have a way to leverage the Web for their business. Some are just waking up to it, and others have dived in headfirst.

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