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What are Amazon's search intentions?

The loss of A9 CEO Udi Manber to Google has some experts wondering where search fits in at the online retailer.

Internet search giant Google has snatched the leader of Amazon.com's A9 subsidiary, Chief Executive Udi Manber, causing some experts to question the future of the e-commerce company's search efforts.

Manber will become Google's vice president of engineering after he leaves A9 at the end of the week. His departure from Amazon was announced late Tuesday. A9 is a general Web search site, like the more popular Google or Yahoo, and it powers the Web search and site search on Amazon.com.

"Losing the person who is the head of their operations just diminishes credibility for their search and puts a larger question mark behind what they are doing," said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch. "Overall, the move is not a good sign for their search prospects."


What's new:
Internet search giant Google has snatched the leader of Amazon.com's A9 subsidiary, Chief Executive Udi Manber.

Bottom line:
With Manber's departure, some Amazon watchers now question whether the A9 search effort is just an experiment. Amazon says it's as committed as ever to its search effort.

More stories about Amazon

Manber could not be reached for comment.

"He really wants to get back to the work he's been doing for 15 years in search rather than running a company," Amazon spokesman Craig Berman said.

With Manber's departure, some Amazon watchers now question whether the A9 search effort is just an experiment for the Seattle company, or a defensive move to protect e-commerce turf against Google and Yahoo.

"They certainly built something interesting, but it is just sitting there," said Gary Stein, director of client services at BuzzMetrics, a consumer research and consulting firm. "If the brains behind A9 has left, it would make me want to know what the real plan is, not what neat features they are working on."

Amazon hired Manber away from Yahoo in 2002 to be chief algorithms officer, a unique title befitting the author of a book called "Introduction to Algorithms--A Creative Approach." The following year, he was promoted to chief executive. He oversaw the launch of A9's Web site in September 2004.

Before becoming chief scientist at Yahoo in the late 1990s, Manber taught computer science at the University of Arizona and was one of the authors of the Agrep and GLIMPSE software programs.

Under Manber, A9 has launched several unique features, including street-level photos of addresses, used for local search, mapping and driving directions. Amazon also is rumored to be working on a contextual advertising platform that would compete with Google.

A9 lets people navigate, annotate and store Web pages they've visited, recommends sites based on users' past preferences and organizes results into expandable columns. "The idea is to take search one level further and organize the information we search for," Manber said in a September 2004 interview. "We wanted to build a search engine with memory and help you organize it yourself."

Though Amazon hired the well-respected search guru and beefed up its services, A9 has never really caught on among mainstream Web surfers. It ranked 27th among search engines used by U.S. Web surfers in December, representing 0.1 percent of total searches, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

"In the last year and a half, (A9) hasn't skyrocketed in popularity," Sullivan said.

Amazon's Berman disagreed with criticism that the company has not been fully dedicated to search.

"We are 100 percent committed to A9's mission," he said. "We certainly want to grow the (number of) users of A9.com...We believe there are going to be a lot of winners because it's still very early in the evolution of search."

David Tennenhouse, formerly vice president of the corporate technology group and research director at Intel, will replace Manber at A9.

Amazon also has the Alexa subsidiary, which provides Web site traffic statistics and Web site crawling, but gets its search results from Google.

Google has a growing reputation for hiring employees from rivals and luring other tech industry luminaries to its expanding payroll, including Internet pioneer Vint Cerf from MCI. The most controversial hiring so far has been that of former Microsoft employee Kai-Fu Lee to head up Google's China operations. That move prompted a lawsuit that was recently settled.

Sullivan was not optimistic about the future of A9 without Manber at the helm.

"I suspect A9 will continue to be the relatively little used service that won't gain market share from any of the major players," he said. "It's very hard to break out of the cable television portion of search and become one of the major broadcasters."