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The Book on Amazon.com's A9 Search Engine

By Cory Kleinschmidt, 4/26/2004

When Amazon.com announced that they were going to launch their own search
engine called A9, many
search engine observers thought they were
nuts. I was one of them.


When Amazon.com released its beta search engine last week in the midst of
search engine mania caused largely by the media's obsession with Google's
every move,
many people
yawned.
I was one of
them.


I decided to wait a few days to kick A9's tires and see what Danny
and Chris
thought about it.
Well,
Chris
said
A9.com was pretty darn cool, so I finally decided to give it a
spin. At first I wasn't terribly impressed. The search results were pretty
much a carbon
copy
of
Google's
index, which Amazon is licensing as part of its distribution deal for placing
Google's AdWords on Amazon.com. Not only that, but the
search result links are... um, brown, instead of the standard bluish
links on other search engines. Yuck!


Why A9 is Different


So, despite the horror of brown links, I decided to press on and put
A9 through its paces, paying close attention to the much-ballyhooed
personalization
features.
And you know what? I
like A9,
I really, really do.


To tap into the fun stuff, you have to register, or at least be
a member of Amazon.com. And if you use the Web, you are. So, just sign in with
your Amazon account, and you're set.


I hadn't anticipated that the personalized search history would be very compelling,
but, wow, it sure is. With it, you can view a historical list of your own searches
in a convenient sidebar called Search History that's so easy to use, it makes
using Google feel so...
old-fashioned (sorry, big G). The search history is very similar to Internet
Explorer's "History" feature,
which records the sites you've visited over a given period. Except here,
you can track exactly how
many times
you searched on a phrase and delete searches you don't want to store.


And if
you're a book junkie, you'll love the other sidebar, called "Book Results,"
which displays books related to the context of your search from Amazon's nifty
"Search Inside the Book" tool. How neat. It will be interesting to see how
often this leads me to buy something.
If you're worried about screen clutter, don't be. Both
sidebars can be expanded and collapsed with one click.


Other cool features: A9 tells you not only how many times you've searched
on a phrase, but also shows a label next to the site in the seach results that
indicates the last time you visited that site. Very cool.


I'm less than enthused, however, about the "Site Info" button associated
with each search result, which displays Alexa data when you mouse over it.
At least
for the time being, Alexa's stats are practically useless. Their numbers are
only based on the small number of people who have enabled the Alexa toolbar
in Internet Explorer. But, now that Amazon has the means to more accurately
measure how popular sites are, maybe Alexa's quality will improve. That wouldn't
be a bad thing.


Minding Amazon's Business


If you think about A9 from a business perspective, it's quite ingenious. I
don't think Amazon would be foolish enough to actually try to dethrone Google
from its heavenly ordained post as the king of search engines; I don't think
that's their point. Amazon has a customer base of millions, and I believe their
primary goal is to use A9 to encourage more book sales. Expect to see a blizzard
of ads all over Amazon.com after this beta period ends.


Just as Google "gives away" their ulra-fast and accurate search
engine to induce people to click on search engine ads that make Google lots
of money, Amazon
will give away A9's search engine -- including all of its fancy features
and toolbar
(more
on that
in a
bit)
-- not just to cash in on the AdWords it displays, but to sell more
books, CDs and other products.


A9, if you can get past the brown links, is
so robust, you'll have a hard
time believing it took only about a year to create. Of course, the hard part
-- the search index, algorithms and infrastructure -- are piggybacked on Google's
technology, so that probably sped development considerably. To contrast, there's
a good chance
we'll
still be waiting on Microsoft's new "vapor engine" until 2006!


Another Flippin' Toolbar?


A9 wouldn't be a modern search engine without its own toolbar, now would it?
But, this toolbar offers
features not available on any other major toolbar. Sure, it has the now-obligatory
search box, pop-up ad blocker and
a panoply of features lifted from Google and Yahoo, but wait, there's more!
You also have easy access to your personalized search history, which you can
revisit and manage from the toolbar, as well as an integrated Diary feature,
which just might be the most useful feature of A9's toolbar.


The Diary button enables you to store notes about particular pages, which
should become a cherished feature for students, journalists and info junkies
everywhere.
Since it's web-based, you can supposedly access it from anywhere. Can you see
that Amazon's going to be collecting an avalanche of data in no time? The
demands on Amazon's infrastructure will likely prove considerable, but the
benefits they'll reap by selling more products will more than pay for
itself.


Should You Divorce Google?


If all this sounds appealing, you could very well face a serious
dilemma, as I do now. Because A9 is essentially the Google of the future, it
may be tempting to divorce our old love, the only search engine we could truly
trust to be faithful to us for the past five years.


It's hard to believe that, for the first
time since I started using Google five
years
ago,
I could actually see myself switching to another search engine, or at least
offering joint custody of my browser to A9 and Google. I'm still not sure I'm
head over heels in love with A9, but my affection is growing daily.


So, I don't see a divorce on the horizon just yet. But, I'll sure be cheating
on my first love quite a bit over the coming weeks.



Cory Kleinschmidt is the webmaster of Traffick.com. 

 

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