NEWS: A9, Amazon’s Search Portal, Goes Live: Reverberations Felt in Valley

A9, Amazon's much discussed skunk works search project goes live today, so I can finally write about it. I saw it last month (caveat: unbeknownst to me until recently, Amazon targeted me as their conduit to break this news – I think they wanted it to move from the blogosphere…

beta-a9-logo.gifamazon.gifA9, Amazon’s much discussed skunk works search project goes live today, so I can finally write about it. I saw it last month (caveat: unbeknownst to me until recently, Amazon targeted me as their conduit to break this news – I think they wanted it to move from the blogosphere out, as opposed the WSJ in) and had to keep the damn thing to myself, it was hard, and here’s why: On first blush it’s a very, very good service, and an intriguing move by Amazon. It raises a clear question: How will Google – and more broadly, the entire search-driven world – react?

My gut tells me the public face will be one of partnership: After all, A9 uses Google’ search results and displays at least two paid AdWord listings per result (I’ve requested comment from Google, you can imagine I’m not the only one…). But I have to wonder: What business is Google in, after all? Is it still in the business of just search – as it was back when it was cutting search provisioning deals right and left, with Yahoo (already ended), AOL (arguable imperiled due to Gmail and other trends), Ask, and Amazon? Is it really still in the business of being an OEM to others, a strategy which allowed it to steal those portals’ customers? Or…has it evolved, to a business where it owns a large customer base, one it must now position itself to defend?

It seems to me, Google’s position in Amazon’s A9 implementation is at best a step backwards. If A9 is as good as it seems to be, every customer that uses and/or switches to A9 becomes an A9 search customer, and, more likely than not, a deeper and far more loyal Amazon customer. (The service incorporates a personal search history and many other really neat tweaks, including a wicked good Toolbar.) In essence, Amazon seems to be making a play for Google’s customers. Or it seems that way to me, anyway. Sure, Amazon isn’t in the AdWords business. It’s happy to outsource that to Google and focus on the entire US retail GDP instead…

manberUdi Manber, the head of A9 and one of the leading lights of the search community, is understandably evasive when asked about this subject. Google and Amazon have always been friends and partners (despite the fact that “Work at Google” is the top paid link when you search on his name on Google). But as I point out in the introduction to my Business 2.0 interview, to be posted any moment now, one-time partners can quickly become serious competitors in the Search Find Obtain market. And judging from the look of it, A9 is a very direct statement from Amazon: We are now officially in the search business, so get used to it.

One could argue that A9 is a pure commerce play, not a search portal. After all, that’s what the folks at Amazon insisted when they founded the company and located it in the heart of Google/YahooLand (ie, Palo Alto). But that argument is disingenuous. First off, take a look at the A9 interface. Where’s the commerce? (Answer, it’s there, but it’s hidden, more on that later when I post on the service itself). And second, I’d argue that you can’t really be in the commerce business without having at least a strategy for owning search. The reverse also holds true. It’s two ends toward the middle, and by the way, that middle ground is getting damn crowded – AOL, Yahoo, MSN, eBay, IAC, Amazon, Google…

Of course anyone who’s been in this game for a while will tell you that the internet industry is rife with cat and mouse games of cooperation turned to competition. Netscape’s outsourced its early search traffic to Yahoo, thereby ensuring Yahoo’s success. Yahoo paid the favor forward by outsourcing its search to Google, a practice it ended only last quarter. Microsoft built Overture, and crushed Looksmart. And AOL’s advertising business is on the rise again, due in large part to a deal with Google, which just announced a stunning new email service that pretty much decapitates one of AOL’s core differentiators (oh, Yahoo and MSN as well…).

What makes this particularly noteworthy is that A9 is built quite literally on top of Google. In short, Amazon has taken the best of Google, and made it, to my mind, a lot better. Sound familiar? Yup, it’s what Google did to Yahoo, Yahoo to Netscape…you get the picture.

It all reminds me of a quote in a recent AP story from Google employee #1:

(The ongoing threat of competition) has helped keep Google from becoming complacent, said Craig Silverstein, the company’s director of technology. “If someone should come along and do a better job than us, we know people will switch in a heartbeat.”

Something tells me the hearts are beating a bit faster at Yahoo and Google HQs today. Will Google renew its deal with Amazon? Will Bezos and Schmidt put a good face on it and call this a partnership? I have no idea, but man, things are certainly getting interesting in this neck of the woods. More after I talk with folks and get a second order view of the landscape.

(I’ll also have a much more complete posting on A9, including a tour of its features and a discussion of its strategic implications later tonight.)

PS- for a tour of what’s cool in A9: Click here.

91 thoughts on “NEWS: A9, Amazon’s Search Portal, Goes Live: Reverberations Felt in Valley”

  1. Great writeup John – Dave Winer commented about Google’s API and how if someone wanted to compete, they should try competing at the developer level. There are a number of very interesting applications built on top of the API (and not just useful for SEO folks) and this is an area where I think there is room for inovation by the other search engines, but we just haven’t seen it.

    alek

    P.S. I also think Google has done some nice brand name enhancement/recognition with projects such as Google Toolbar Compute – see my team at:
          http://www.powder2glass.com/Google_Toolbar_Compute/
    which also supports a good cause. So they have done a good job of keeping “Google” in people’s minds, so I question how many folks will use A9.

  2. Most of the comments are off the mark here. Focusing on UI or some incremental feature people like/don’t like. The real invention here, or should I say opportunity for invention, is at the data type level. Google WAS an order of magnitude better than prior search because the results were tons more relevant and clean. But Google still is just doing HTML scraping. Ask even the Google guys and they will say search is less than 15% done. What is not done are many more datatypes like RSS, Atom, audio, video and lots more both structured and unstructured.

    Many people are getting bogged down with discussions of how you monitize search (Google adwords or Amazon transactions). Monitization is not the frontier. Data is. A9 has access to four proprietary databases that add significant value to the search process:
    1. My amazon preferences, buying habits, etc.
    2. Amazon’s personalization engine built on arguably the largest e-commerce transaction database in the world.
    3. The book contents database. There is more content in books than on the web (and much higher value).
    4. The Amazon SKU database (and the auction listings).

    These four things are not found in detail with basic Google. And they add value to the search process and results. There are other islands of data. Blogs (all the metadata) are an island today (Technorati is doing a good job unlocking that). Music and video are a HUGE island today mostly due to the media company propensity to sue anyone who gets close to them. The frontier of search is all these islands of data types.

  3. “A9 uses Google’ search results”

    Then why does this happen when I search for Grossberg on …

    Google:
    * Joe Grossberg
    * Rami Grossberg’s WWW Page
    * Grossberg Company LLP
    * Stephen Grossberg
    * Stephen Grossberg’s On-Line Publications
    * CURRICULUM VITAE
    * Amy Grossberg

    A9:
    * Rami Grossberg’s WWW Page
    * Stephen Grossberg
    * Stephen Grossberg’s On-Line Publications
    * CURRICULUM VITAE
    * Amy Grossberg,
    * Scott Grossberg Photography
    * CG&C Interactive – The Virtual Law Office (TM)

    Fine, my page has a naughty word in the subtitle, but why drop Grossberg Company LLP (a totally unaffiliated accounting firm)?

    And why not tell people they’re doing this, like Google’s “Moderate SafeSearch is On” note, as Christophe noted above?

  4. Amazing. Although I don’t even consider speculating about the business plans of competing companies, it seems to be that Amazon is trying to flex its search muscle. Would it displace google, or just edge it aside using a similar approach (distributed computer, everything in RAM, speed and quality as main virtues)?

  5. A9 is clearly in the position of adding significant value, even if it isn’t apparent that it’s doing so now. In maintaining a search history for the users, and leveraging Amazon’s userid connection, they have a HUGE amount of information to enable a hueristic base for disambiguation. In short, they know what you’ve been looking for, and what you’ve clicked when you did look, so they’ve got a pretty darn good idea of what you might like and can use that information to tune the results.

    A perfect example is “elvis”. Is the person looking for the “the king”, or Elvis Costello? If you know which the user already prefered (perhaps by purchase history of CD’s), you’d have a pretty good leg up…

  6. For some months now Google has been using a filter to block certain “overoptimised” sites from turning up in the search results (the so-called “Florida Update”)

    You can turn off the Florida filtering in Google by preceding the search string with allintext:

    Try this simple experiment – open three browser windows, two for Google and one for A9. In the first Google window search for “kittens” (without the quotes), the second window look for “allintext: kittens” and in the A9 window, search for just “kittens”. You’ll see that the A9 results are the same as the “allintext:” results from Google – i.e. they’re not using Florida filtering, which is a recent “tweaking step”.

    In other words, A9 *is* using straight Google results, but Google choose to add an additional layer of filtering to their results.

    Combine this with the adult content filter, and the results look very different.

  7. I’d be happy if Amazon simply used a9 as a practice grounds for improving amazon.com search, which is abominably horrible at the moment. Sometimes I wonder if all sites should just use Google “site:xxx.com keyword” for search.

  8. A9 does clearly remind one of the limits of web search and that there’s a universe of (often more authoritative) information out there in the form of books.

    The separate columns seem like a usability problem to me: how does the eye scan such results? One either bounces back and forth between columns or follows one column down, scrolls back up, and follows the other.

    Another problem, possibly caused by the redirection they have to use, is that already-visited links aren’t colored differently. So, the old-fashioned method of knowing what you’ve already visited doesn’t work.

    http://www.irider.com

  9. Perhaps Amazon is gathering a MASS of users from the Google crowd… and when the time is right, they’ll execute a ruthless backstab by disconnecting Google, replacing Google search with an Amazon-patented search technology that is light-years ahead of anything out there, emerging as the CHAMPION of search.

  10. I run the same searches on google every morning and it appears that A9’s results are ~2 weeks behind google’s results.

    Also A9 doesn’t realize that foo.com/~bar and foo.com/bar are the same, so A9 duplicates results that google collapses into a single result. They do appear to have figured out http://www.foo.com and foo.com are the same.

    A9 also seems to drop some blogs (not adult!) that are returned by the same search on google.

  11. i don’t really understand the book search results or the search history bars… the first thing i did was to minimize these (cool javascript trick by the way).
    will we really ever use these? maybe amazon is planning on putting some of their results on this page (as suggested by many people on this blog) but i don’t really see that working out very well. the “search inside the book” definitely kicks google’s print project’s butt though πŸ™‚

  12. Beta version.

    Room for improvement, and progressive use of initial user’s comments filling that room, I guess. So, following with a guess the A9 management reads this line of intelligble comments, so I rather put my instant first use improvement suggestions here, rather than using some feedback form or so.

    Firstly, moving into more “intelligence” in the World of Searching the World Online. That’s the thing.

    Remember the Apple early vision of “Knowledge Navigator”? We’re migrating to that more and more now. Depth in searches and including the searching inside the book feature makes sense. And the “memory” added. History. The more simple AI engines coming forward, the more learning from my searchers, that this opens the door for with intelligent database usage with an interaction done, now permissed to track my search history, the better. Some excessive datamining here, the information also could improve the “generic” world of searching. It’s an open door for some groundbreaking improvements in the world of Search Quality. Remember that it was the key feature, only to include one thing to improve the world of searching that made Google stick out – tracking how many web sites that link to this, and improving the search position as one of the parameters. Two or three intelligent uses of these kinds of features, would make A9 to stand out totally. Even if its Amazon commercialization is obvious, and perhaps annoying, if you let yourself be annoyed of those who wants to grab your bucks. But don’t rely on my convenience and laziness only. I can find Amazon stuff elsewhere. You don’t HAVE to buy it there, because price comparison European leader Kelkoo is for my prospective buying anyways (http://www.kelkoo.com).

    Secondly, to increase the number of users switching to A9, if you want it, the Tell A Friend thing using email, and tracking that email with a permission from you to see if your friend also is an A9 user, including it next time you log on to A9 (or if not – a mail saying – “Hey, use A9”), the obvious community of your friends around you, that special community that everyone is trying to have yourself to speed “remarkable” stuff talking to Seth Godin, would increase the number of users. A9 as in itself a strong ideavirus, I would say. It surely created a buzz this week! (http://www.sethgodin.com) But just a lame tell a friend referral, the obvious sharing of “This page might be of interest of you, since I remeber that you are in the Biz of YYY” or “Hey, look what I find for your paper/blog/magazine/book to come/birthday present to ZZZ”. Whatever. Remember one thing – the best search engine still is the People. More efficient to ask a person to get the Real Quality coming from an entity having I-N-T-U-I-T-O-N. That’s why Human to Human Interaction should be of use for this! With this “Searches suggested by XXX” on top when logging in to A9 for your morning cup of coffee and another day in the networked world. Soon wireless everywhere ultrawideband.

    Thirdly, that sure brings me to the final thing to say.

    “What shall Google do?”

    (in the same breath this Amazon page ha ha – “Googlemania” from Wired in the Amazon spot – http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B00005N7TL/ref=pd_ecs_mag_eb_a/002-5014890-9545626?v=glance&s=magazines&n=)

    That eBook by the same Godin, a collaborative effort by many (me included…yeah, ok, shameless self promotion is not the case, promise!), maybe A9 would be the one implementing the stuff I suggested there (that’s the reason of me mentioning it, the issue was in central :);

    And searching A9 on that phrase; πŸ™‚ – the top result from “What shall Google Do?” brought it to my little joy;

    http://www.on-a-mission.org/google.htm

    From our business website, where this suggestion was in that published eBook all the way relevant to download in this context!(http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2003/08/word_on_the_str.html)

    So, I run it here. Again. Why? Let it talk for itself.

    “I’ll just make it simple. For every search you do, 1 cent goes to an investment fund for long term poverty eradication and empowerment. Like the fund we are in the loop to build up. There is in global interest of having poverty eradicated. My mind is all too set on it to think of anything more than above :).”

    Period. End of story. Thanks for having you following me to here.

    Peace,
    Anders
    “sustaionpreneur”
    Blog – http://www.andersabrahamsson.net – this note crossposted
    Business – http://www.on-a-mission.org – this being the Walk of the Talk of the last suggestion for improvement (waiting for the Full Version of A9 to include this feature) πŸ™‚

  13. Dont really see that working out very well. the “search inside the book” definitely kicks google’s print project’s butt though πŸ™‚

  14. I think one thing that no one seems to have mentioned is that fact that Google isn’t just going to sit around and do nothing. They will look at A9, see what people like about them and what people don’t and then use that to improve Google.

    Now, I’ve got to be honest. I would be a little scared to be pouring money into Google right now. With Yahoo! gone, AOL to be soon, and Amazon now bringing along their own Google has a lot to live up to.

    Now let’s not forget that Microsoft has totally new search technology coming around sometime soon, most likely with the release of Longhorn (Windows 2005?). Now I know all of the “anti-Microsoft” people will flip out and start yelling at me for even brining them up but you have to consider what they have in the works. Weather you like them or not most of you are using their technology right now…

    If Microsoft is able to build a sufficient search engine, and have it built into the new OS with the ability to search through my files and maybe others (P2P directly into OS?) all with the same search as I use for the web, and it works…. well, then I’ll be switching.

    I’m still waiting for Google to become a full service software company (probably won’t happen) but I really want a Google Spam Filter.

    A9 is nothing hot, nothing bad really (unlike that Kartoo that someone mentioned above), just nothing hot. If you have the Google toolbar it remembers your searches for you and those stupid panels on the right hand side are annoying. Also, the results are nothing special. But if A9 were to leave Google (which I would expect in the near future) they may be able to find some imporovments on the results. I’ve found that Yahoo! brings back some wonderful resutls these days it’s just too bad their UI sucks.

    That’s just my 2 cents which really doesn’t matter because I’m just a partner in a small, struggling, web development company in the little town of Mooresville, NC. But what else can I do but leave my comments?

  15. The first time I tried A9 I found I already had two searches in the search history — searches which I didn’t remember. That’s interesting. One was “DVD BOXED SETS” which must have come from my Amazon pre-order a couple of days ago of the upcoming Star Wars DVD boxed set — but I never actually used those search terms when interacting with Amazon. If that search did spawn this bogus “search history” I have real questions about privacy etc. etc. etc.

    I like the features especially the automatic retrieval of images as well as web searches.

    I have questions about the interface — I use Firefox and its multitabbing feature extensively and the tabs on the right side of A9 (I mean, buttons) seem to overlap functionally a bit.

    Overall I like A9 but I’m not sure it will replace Google for me, especially since I don’t understand fully the (commercial) relationship between A9 and Amazon. If this is just another way to push me into Amazon, I don’t need it — I already use Amazon a lot, thank you, and don’t need another tool fuzzing things up.

    Like any portal type of tool I’ve used, I will want to “customize” it to how I work, and right now, I’m not sure about that.

  16. Microsoft didn’t “build Overture” — unless I’m mistaken, I think they bought GoTo.com (already a well established player by then)

  17. Tried A9.com for the first time, and although I love the history and personalization features, I really think the lack of functionality like this is one of the reasons that people choose google. Yahoo and some more localized search portals have has personalization for a long time.

    I know it’s already been said, but Google is really simple, and it comes off as not tracking your usage (whether or not this is true, it’s all perception).

    I think that many people are a little wary about sharing their surf habits with a company like Amazon.

    Or perhaps it’s just the geek in me speaking.

    I’m also glad to hear someone else call the A9 GUI ugly. It really doesn’t work well for me, although I am in Firefox.

    Tony

  18. I think that Google wins anytime someone extends functionality by using their API. It has a been a big driver of their sucess. It doesn’t appear to me that Amazon is really serious about search yet even though they are toying with it to be ready if the percieved threat level from Google rises.

    My thoughts on life in Steamboat Springs
    http://www.steamboat-springs.blogspot.com/

  19. I am completely satisfied with google search and I do not even think of mooving somewhere else. A9 may be as good as gold but I wouldn’t make a move towards smth that have more than a search bar.

  20. I think google is the most annoying thing ever it suxs i cant even use certin things it it brings me too the google search

  21. Amazon Sux, anyway. Their system is completely broken, and I’m enjoying reading stuff from another online bookstore while they go chase themselves, whatever they do!

  22. it is about 3 years after your this article appear. Mind to share your experiences about A9 in this 2 years ?how do you find it ?

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  24. I think one thing that no one seems to have mentioned is that fact that Google
    isn’t just going to sit around and do nothing. They will look at A9, see what
    people like about them and what people don’t and then use that to improve

  25. just drink the water and shut up….if you’re really that worried about the environmental aspects of the fiji water, you wouldn’t be drinking it in the first place…

  26. I think one thing that no one seems to have mentioned is that fact that Google
    isn’t just going to sit around and do nothing. They will look at A9, see what
    people like about them and what people don’t and then use that to improve tHANK yOU

  27. It can be a better solution for an end-user who is in touch with Amazon often inorder to search for some product and get the results are mostly relevent to the products.

    A9.com lacks some usability and accessibility features. Search results need to be organized well for better access, now it seems little congested content. Some of the features are not compatible with some others browser(Opera). Amazon need to take these bugs severely before end-users start going away.

    Thanks!

    Veeresh D.
    http://drveresh.googlepages.com

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