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. Let’s see: it remembers searches and clickthroughs, and the toolbar allows annotation of urls. Actual searches are passed through to Google and Inside the Book, and I find it hard to imagine Amazon product search not appearing in there at some point.

    So it’s really kind of a search-tracking tool, with individualized record-keeping.

    Is it just an attempt to slide in Amazon search channels next to Google?

  2. I think a lot of us die-hard Googlers will still be using Google for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the clean, no-nonsense interface and reliable results, the combination of which you just don’t get from other services out there. Maybe it’d just take me a while to get used to the A9 interface, but for now and the foreseeable future, I’m sticking with Google, as I’m just not that impressed yet. (I’m feeling like an old curmudgeon, writing this! ha.)

    Not that this is an A9 thing, more of an Amazon rant, but I’ve actually found Amazon’s “search inside the book” feature to be incredibly annoying. I can no longer simply put a word or two from the title in the search bar on the main page and immediately find the results I’m looking for. I now have to slog through pages and pages of results before I find my title. There’s also no advanced searching options, which makes it even more frustrating. It’s infuriating at times and has kept me from buying something via Amazon just because I don’t want to search for it there, and so I end up ordering it locally. So it’s probably good, in a way.

  3. In what way is it better than Google?

    I don’t get it. I don’t particularly want to log into a search engine.

    And do I read this correctly that it’s just a repurposing of Google’s search engine? If so, I don’t predict a lot of people will switch.

  4. Even accepting the premise that A9 improves on Google, that doesn’t mean this is a stepping-stone to Amazon replacing Google in any way. Without Google, all of A9’s search-tracking ability means zilch. And I don’t see Amazon building its own Google any time soon.

    Second – the search market is huge, and there’s room for more than one player. Google and Amazon increasingly overlap, but that doesn’t mean a partnership doesn’t make sense.

  5. The last post was supposed to read:

    I can see it now: “People who searched for blah also searched for…” or “Great search: Search for blah and blah2 – you save 2 clicks!”

    Seriously, I can see why Amazon would want to do this – essentially it pushes the “search Amazon content” out into the wider world (ie. search Amazon without having to come to Amazon first; we’ll get you eventually.) I noticed that the “site info” button does a redirect so that the page is an Amazon-emblazoned page, complete with a listing for “People who visited this page also visited these other pages,” not to mention all of the Amazon purchase tabs and doodads.

    Why people would want to use it over straight Google is another matter altogether. So far, the upstart competitors to Google, a.k.a. pretenders to the throne like Teoma and others, haven’t caught the public’s imagination. Besides, “A9” doesn’t lend itself to becoming a verb.

  6. Don’t forget, us Googlers used to be Altavista’ers before that and Lycos’ers before that … Search technology evolves and the one giving the best results wins. It’s nothing new.

  7. Google wasn’t incrementally better than Alta Vista, it blew it away.

    AV was loading up on junk and had become horribly cluttered and slow. If I remember correctly it had been sold a few times. It was a mess.

    Google came in, either by design or luck, and offered us something that was fast, focused and not-a-mess. And it was like magic with page-rank. Incrementally better, like Teoma is, isn’t good enough to make a diff.

    I’ve been wondering why one of Google’s competitors doesn’t try to take all the developers by enhancing the Google API. It’s just sitting there for two years, not moving, with a set of very obvious enhancements possible. Become the OEM search engine for everyone who doesn’t have a Kleiner Perkins partner on their Board of Directors. ;->

    That might be enough to make Google look like chopped liver.

  8. OK, I’ve done more exploration into the “site info”. Their description of it is pretty minimal, but it’s clear that they’re building the same sort of review and usage data that Amazon maintains for books and products. With a user id, one can enter a review for each website.

    So what they’re adding is really a review and association database for websites. Google results drive the traffic that goes into the analysis. That fits with Manber’s former title as “Chief Algorithms Officer”.

    In the future perhaps they’ll build associations between websites and products, so one can find a list of cooking websites next to “The Joy of Cooking”, and vice-versa.

  9. A9 AMAZON search engine:

    type search:GREANPEACE result:Buy baby seal fur at Amazon.com, 20%off

    type search:TORTURE result:Buy bondadge equipment at Amazon.com, gays 10%off, dictators 13%off

    type search:POLICE 911 result:Buy album at Amazon.com Roxanne included.

  10. A9 filters adult content to a fault. Search for the word “penthouse” and you get ZERO results. What if I’m not into porn? What if I’m into architecture?

    And on the other hand, what if I really AM into porn? Typing “naked celebrities” brings me everything BUT naked celebrities. You can’t really call yourself a complete search engine if you’re censoring what I might find.

    Especially if you’re not being up front about it.

  11. Not sure I get it yet. They are pulling Alexa into it, which makes sense. I suppose if the toolbar syncs with Alexa’s they are going to start generating an even more massive set of data… The sign in is prominent too, its starting to make sense from the corporate side, they are fiending for even more personal information to crunch.

    But what do they offer the users? Saving your searches has some use, but its damn scary as well. Will the public at large care though? Well first they need to have a reason to use it in the first place…

  12. “…Reverberations Felt in Valley” The hyperbole is thick. If I were Yahoo! or Google, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over a dumbed-down, anti-porn Google-lite-with-Amazon-on-top search service. Perhaps some future Amazon personalization might make it noteworthy… I’m not holding my breath. Now a new MSN search with government-sanctioned monopolistic distribution… that might be a little worrying… but they’ll screw the first few release up.

    AltaVista was developed by Digital Equipment Corporation. Digital was bought by Compaq (who were clueless). AV was by far the best search engine until Google with lots of advanced features (like “near” — which Google needs). Using Lycos… you have to be kidding.

  13. I think it’s also worth remembering Amazon’s obnoxious patent behavior.

    Now i gotta go home and get my new books that were delivered same-day for free by bn.com.

  14. I found search inside the book invaluable when i built a deck on the back of my house. most info like that is still inside do it yourself books

  15. I suspect it works both ways. Amazon bought Alexa, and it’s possible that the A9 deal comes with access to the Alexa database, which would give Google a metric shit-load of neatocool data to play with.

  16. Why wouldn’t Google just strip the two actual improvements (the Diary feature is fascinating in a way, and the last-time-you-visited thing sounds like a necessary improvement) and make their own versions? Ones that are better, and streamlined?

    Amazon’s MS-smart. Google’s evolutionary-smart. The latter always wins.

  17. Well, at least my web site FINALLY has an ASIN (B0001AX72C). πŸ™‚

    How many toolbars does it take to browse? (MSN, google, alexa and now a9? plus anonymizer/steganos…)

    I’m not sure the logging in aspect is appealing… if I like a site, I’ll just bookmark it.

  18. Well, at least my web site FINALLY has an ASIN (B0001AX72C). πŸ™‚

    How many toolbars does it take to browse? (MSN, google, alexa and now a9? plus anonymizer/steganos…)

    I’m not sure the logging in aspect is appealing… if I like a site, I’ll just bookmark it.

  19. error in article: “insuring Yahoo’s success”

    should be: “ensuring Yahoo’s success”

    error: “The reverse also hold true”

    correction: “The reverse also holds true”

    You should proofread your articles, or if you don’t feel capable of it, find yourself an editor who can.

  20. Addressing various points:

    HISTORY: A9’s history is well-implemented from a website-design perspective, but its usefulness is limited. How often would someone want to repeat the same search?

    Regarding privacy, the history is remembered in cookies… although it could also be associated with your Amazon account if you’re logged in, and that is scary.

    ALEXA: For those who don’t know, Alexa is owned by Amazon but not many people are aware of it. It provides somewhat-useful traffic data of websites, but the data is only gathered by people using the Amazon/Alexa toolbar, which few people use.

    BACK BUTTON: Evidently when you do a search with A9, it goes to one page that redirects to another. So you get two entries in your back-button dropdown menu for “A9.com Search: test search” for example. If you click the Back button, it goes back only to the page that redirects you so you can never go back by clicking the button. Extremely annoying and extremely pointless.

    WEBSITE DESIGN: No one mentioned this yet, but the website design of A9 sucks. The colors are hard to read and the fonts are way too small. Google also has a somewhat annoying website but it’s not nearly as bad.

  21. Otis:
    The reason that you found a9 material in Wayback is because the domain used to owned by someone else. The domain was first registered in September 1999.

    The a9 domain was taken over by Amazon/a9 in late October 2003.

    The previous domain owner was a person in Pennsylvania.

    Prior to that it was owned by domain registration/consultant in California.

  22. Interesting comments here, and I am sure input that the folks at A9 will take to heart, esp. the back button and porn stuff. Keep it coming. I plan to use A9 as my main engine for a while to see what it’s like. I sense that it gets better over time, as it gets to know you – and as you start to create a search ecology of sorts – the space you search in the most.

  23. I like the Google GUI much better. The color scheme is more appropriate – the yellow is a bit of a strain. Also, the sponsored links from a search result are relegated to the side of the page. This is much nicer than having some at the top of your search results.

    However, A9 nicely integrates amazon.com site features with Google search technology, and adds some cool features. As a growing internet junky, the following features are of note:

    http://www.a9/%5Benter search term] – good for toolbar-less quick search
    ability to search google and amazon.com at the same time
    site info minipages (which I hear is generated only by Alexa/Amazon toolbarrees

  24. CGameProgrammer, the redirect is page that breaks the back button is not worthless, it allows Amazon to fully track what search results get clicked. I suppose they could do it with Javascript or something similar, but it seems they found the redirect approach more efficient or easier to implement. Either way its pretty clear they have designed this engine to harvest as much data as possible from the users, far more then Google is collecting now…

  25. a positive, they have set up a site specifically for those who don’t want their data collected: http://generic.a9.com/

    the flip to that of course is that its a tacit admission that they are collecting enough information to raise some peoples alarms.

    the privacy policy has a similar duality. On one hand they assure that: “Information about our customers is an important part of our business, and we are not in the business of selling it to others”

    so they probably won’t sell your info outright although the phrasing is vague enough that its not a guarantee. but at the same time they carve out exceptions for “Use of Third Party Service Providers” and “Business Relationships with Third Parties We Do Not Control”.

    as I read it, you can’t go and buy their data, but if you enter into a “business partnership” with Amazon, then hey the info is yours to explore.

  26. Filtered search results could be a plus for A9. I know some parents that will want their kids to use a search engine that tries to eliminate porn from its index.

    Google requires that its users go to the advanced search page to turn on filtering.

    One last thing: Porn sites have been spamming the search engines. Filtering can lead to better search results.

  27. commenting on the anti-adult features, I typed in “porn” to the a9 search engine, and then clicked on related books, and this was the first result:

    How to Become a Porn Director: Making Amateur Adult Films
    by Nick Ryder (16 January, 2002)

    So apparently the adult filtering applies to everything but books.

  28. Whoop.

    Unlike certain people I liked the graphics. The overall look however…

    Same old, same old. A linear list with ten entries, to see more you have to load another page.

    For a better search experience try Kartoo. It’s not a search engine, instead it uses a number of search engines to get the results. The difference lies in how the results are presented. As a map or series of maps showing sites found as folders, plus keywords scattered among the folders. When you put the pointer over a site information on it appears in the left side bar and arrows point to the relevant keywords. Put the pointer over a keyword you get arrows pointing to relevant sites.

    In addition, you get a list of search terms in the left sidebar you can add to the original to narrow the search. The right sidebar has additional information.

    Finally, Kartoo remembers your previous searches, in case you want to go back and check out the results again.

    The three drawbacks it has are that it requires the most recent version of Flash (which shouldn’t be that hard to get), it’s the ‘service’ of a French company, and they charge you to put a Kartoo search box on your site.

    That aside, it is better looking, and gives better results than any other search service I’ve tried yet. The maps alone raise it above Google and A9 in my estimation.

    So you can keep your A9, I’m sticking with Kartoo.

  29. More points:

    A very good idea a9 implemented was the short-URL search. Type this into the address bar:

    a9.com/game development

    That does a search for ‘game development’. Easy. The shortest way to search with Google is:

    google.com/search?q=game development

    Longer and more annoying to type. a9 gets away with the short URL by having all subfolders in the ‘~’ folder. So if the URI doesn’t begin with ‘~/’ then it knows it’s a search query.

    Abe: The search results page can log anything they want; there’s no need for a redirect page.

    Kellogg: I just tried Kartoo. It’s confusing and the text overlaps or spills off the screen, and it’s annoying having to wait a few seconds for the search results. So, I don’t like it. But I agree there may be better ways of expressing the data than a text list, but a mainstream search engine needs to use text by default.

  30. Amazon’s new search engine has the capability to make Amazon.com’s site even sticker for users, if it is deeply integrated with it of course. The whole idea of personalised searching has been talked about for some time now and Google was meant to be launching something along these lines. However Amazon seems to have beaten Google to the punch. The addition of book results brings a lot of the ‘deep web’ into the equation. The new search engine wars may not just be between the Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

  31. The short URL approach is great, although if you’re using Firefox, you don’t need to type a URL at all anyway – just type your search term in the address bar and it goes to Google by default.

    The only thing that’s missing is a way of getting back the results as an XML document (like Amazon.com’s XML-HTTP interface) That would be the killer app. Google screwed up by making their interface SOAP only.

  32. Remember girl and boy, ever “innovation” in Amazon is innovation their lawyers find also. Lol. Ask about PATENT. Plan to sue enemy as in past? Bezos no friend of the common man or common Melones! Lol.

  33. Amazon’s “search inside the book” – sounds like Google’s print beta:
    http://print.google.com/print/faq.html

    Search and commerce have been coming together for sometime – which is obvious as its the only part of “advertising” that is really making any money in the past 2 years.

    You will see more VCs fund search startups – as Amazon will need to acquire to scale their search offerings . . . . and when Google gets around to going public you will see MUCH more VC funding of search co’s – as Google will have a great currency to run around picking off small potential competitors and big strategic partners!

    (By the way GREAT article – don’t worry about the comment on grammar – blogs are not supposed to be edited down — keep em’ coming!)

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