Amazon unveils search tool

The company's A9.com subsidiary quietly launches a test version on the Web, hoping to challenge Yahoo and Google in the lucrative search market.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
Amazon.com has quietly launched a test version of its long-awaited search engine, aiming to challenge industry stalwarts Google and Yahoo with new tools to navigate the Web.

A9.com, an independent unit of the Internet retailer, unveiled its Web site on Wednesday after nearly seven months of development. The search site touts a novel design that lets people sift through Web search results, store and view their own search history, and find book information from Amazon related to query terms. It also promotes a search toolbar that blocks pop-up ads.

"We want to enhance the customer e-commerce search experience, so we're using this beta iteration to gain firsthand commentary from our users," A9 spokeswoman Alison Diboll said. She would not say how long the site would be in beta form.

When Amazon announced the formation of A9 last September, it outlined its development of shopping search technology for internal use and for other companies. But its ambitions now appear to be much wider. The test version of A9's search engine offers Web surfers new variations on other popular search tools.

The service is open to current Amazon customers and others who register with the site.

Amazon, based in Seattle, is forging into search at a time when competition is stiff and the stakes are high. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and a slew of upstarts are vying for Web surfers' search loyalty with seemingly constant quality improvements to the technology powering their results. At stake is the lucrative paid-search market, which is one of the fastest-growing and most closely watched segments of the online advertising business.

Paid search has helped put Yahoo back on its feet, after the dot-com bubble, contributing to $101 million in profits for the first quarter of 2004 and putting the company well ahead of analyst expectations. It also has fueled intense speculation that Google will go public sometime this year. According to Jupiter Research, paid search will grow from $1.6 billion in sales in 2003 to $2.1 billion this year, and it will continue to grow at a compound annual rate of 20 percent through 2008.

More specifically, shopping search has emerged as prime terrain for rivalry among the top players, because it's often the last word before Web surfers find a product or service of choice.

Yahoo recently updated its shopping search engine, and Google is promoting its e-commerce engine Froogle on its home page. Amazon has a vested interest in gaining control of search, because it ultimately drives business to its online store.

A9 is headed by Udi Manber, a well-respected computer scientist and the former chief technology architect at Yahoo. Manber joined Amazon two years ago and helped develop the company's "Search Inside the Book" feature, which lets people browse books by viewing digital renditions of the pages inside them. He moved over to A9 last summer and now runs a team of about 20 software engineers. According to the Web site, A9 is hiring multiple positions in software engineering.

A9's office is headquartered in a nondescript building on Hamilton Street in the heart of Palo Alto, Calif. The building itself is still under construction. On the third floor, the office is simply adorned with a colorful placard of its name on the door, with no receptionist.

A9 is not powered solely by its own search technology but rather by that of Google, Amazon and Alexa, another Amazon subsidiary. Unlike Google, A9 displays search results with expandable columns to the right, which open up book-related listings or a personal history of search queries. It also displays Google-sponsored ad listings. Data stored on its servers can even tell people which sites they've visited--and when. (Web surfers must register to see their personalized search history.)

A9's toolbar lets users search the Web, Amazon, the Internet Movie Database and Google; it also can look up definitions. What's novel about it is that it can keep a diary of notes about any visited Web pages and then store them for access on any computer.

People also can search directly from a browser address bar by typing a9.com/query, for instance, "www.a9.com/harry potter."