Amazon powers up Internet search engine

A9 service claims strong organizational skills and TiVo-like recommendations. Will it be a Google slayer?

Amazon.com has officially taken the wraps off its Internet search engine, joining the contest to unseat No. 1 provider Google.

A9.com, an independent unit of the Internet retailer, launched a new version of its Web site late Tuesday night. The service greatly expands on and organizes early features of A9, which launched in test form in April, to create a helm for steering personalized Web search. To this end, A9 lets people navigate, annotate and store Web pages they've visited, and as the TiVo digital video recorder does with television programs, it will recommend sites based on users' past preferences.

Unlike its search rivals, A9 organizes query results into expandable columns. By default, the site displays a column with a

"We wanted to build a search engine with memory and help you organize it yourself."
--Udi Manber, chief,
Amazon.com's A9 unit
list of links and summaries, a column with image snapshots, and a set of buttons that can be used to open new columns with more specific types of search results, including links to information on books and movies.

A9's branded toolbar also records users' Web-browsing history and makes it accessible and searchable. Web surfers must register to see their personalized search history.

"The idea is to take search one level further and organize the information we search for," Udi Manber, A9's chief, said in an interview. "We wanted to build a search engine with memory and help you organize it yourself."

Amazon is lurching forward in the hotly contested search market, where rivals including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN and Ask Jeeves are all vying for larger portions of the lucrative commercial listings linked to search results. More specifically, shopping search has emerged as prime terrain among the top players because it's often the last word before Web surfers find a product or service of choice. Amazon's shifting role in the business highlights the growing importance of search in driving online commerce.

In fall 2003, when Amazon first announced it would launch the A9 site, questions swirled about the e-commerce company's designs in the marketplace. How would A9 balance being an objective Web search provider while playing host to the largest shopping portal? Those questions still remain.

"It's hard to tell if (A9 is) a quiet player who's about to pounce or a silent partner of Amazon."
--Gary Stein, analyst, Jupiter Research
"It's hard to tell if it's a quiet player who's about to pounce or a silent partner of Amazon," said Jupiter Research analyst Gary Stein.

Under the hood, A9 is powered by technology from Google and Amazon's Alexa subsidiary, and it draws on reference information from GuruNet and the Internet Movie Database, among other sources. It also displays Google-sponsored ad listings.

Amazon's relationship with Google mirrors one that Google forged with Yahoo during the late 1990s--a relationship of "coopetition," some industry watchers say. Amazon and Google are cooperating within a technology partnership, but they are also competing for Web surfers' allegiance.

They're also directly competing in the burgeoning field of book search. Amazon released its "search inside the book" feature last year, which allows people to search within and view excerpts of more than 20,000 books. Google is also testing a service that lets people search the text of books.

That A9 continues to rely on Google for its back-end technology shows that Amazon's prime interests are innovating in interface design and enhancing the consumer experience.

Manber would not say how or if A9 would eventually become a part of the Amazon site.

A9's strength in the search market will center on Amazon's acumen with consumers, he said. "Amazon is good at concentrating on the customer, spotting the customer and working backward."

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