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Blending the Best of Google and Amazon

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With little fanfare, Amazon.com subsidiary A9 launched its long-rumored Google powered search engine last week. But A9 goes beyond Google, offering a number of unique options, including some very cool personalization features.

"What I'm building here is a very innovative company that has a mandate and a will to go and invent new technologies," said Udi Manber, president of A9.com. "We're concentrating on new user interfaces, personalization -- different ways to get people a better user experience."

So is Amazon taking on Google? Is it planning to become a major player in the search arena?

"Our job is to concentrate on ecommerce," said Manber. "Our goal is to experiment with all kinds of technologies. We want to get feedback from users to see how they like certain features, and then implement that as ecommerce search."

Ecommerce may be the ultimate focus, but for now, A9 is essentially a general purpose web search engine, with some interesting and useful new features.

Like Google, A9's interface is sparse, with a large search box and a few of the usual links for additional information. But that's where the resemblance ends, despite the fact that A9 search results are powered by Google.

For starters, featured prominently below the search box is a unique feature: "Search History." If you are an Amazon customer, you can sign in using your Amazon user name and password, and the search history box then tracks all of the searches you perform on A9. To run a search again, simply click its hyperlinked search terms.

Unlike the search history features found in Internet Explorer, the Google toolbar and elsewhere, your search history on A9 can be edited, allowing you to remove sites you don't want displayed.

Result pages also have some interesting features. In addition to sponsored links and search results from Google, there are two additional panes to the right: Book results and search history. Clicking the "open" link for either opens up the panes.

Book results are from Amazon, and include "search inside the book" results allowing you to view scanned pages from within printed books. Manber says that Amazon now has more than 120,000 books scanned, with more added each day.

Search history is identical to what's displayed on the A9.com home page. Both panes can be easily closed, and can also be resized simply by dragging the vertical line to the left of the pane.

Another cool feature is the addition of a label to the left of the URLs in search results that shows whether you've viewed the page or not. Pages you haven't viewed are labeled "new", and those that you've seen display the last time you clicked on the link. This is incredibly helpful if you do a lot of searching and can't remember all of the pages you've visited for a particular search.

Another interesting feature in search results is the "site info" button. Mouse over this button and you'll see a pop-up window with information about the web site provided from Amazon subsidiary Alexa, including traffic rank, number of sites that link to the site, speed, and how long the site has been online.

You'll also see the collaborative filtering process that Amazon does so well with products on its own sites, "connecting the dots" between users. "People who visit this page also visit" shows you the top three sites that Alexa toolbar users have also visited.

For the time being, A9 does not use this collaborative filtering to influence or alter the Google results it displays, though it certainly may in the future.

A9's feature set for this beta release is somewhat limited. Gary Price wrote an extensive comparison of the basic Google features lacking on A9 -- it's not a Google substitute for the power searcher -- not yet, anyway.

The A9 Toolbar

I have to admit I groaned when I saw that A9 was offering a toolbar. Not another one! I've found myself uninstalling toolbars lately, as they increasingly encroached on my browser's web page viewing area. But A9's toolbar provides all of the functionality described above with a couple of other useful features.

A9's toolbar has the usual default features: highlighting of search terms, a popup blocker, and the option to search not only the web, but the current site, Amazon, a dictionary and thesaurus, the Internet Movie Database, and Google (this gives you quick access to the Google's full functionality, which isn't available yet on A9).

The toolbar also gives you one-click access to your history -- both your search history and all of the pages that you've visited.

The coolest feature is called "Diary." Click the diary button and a small window opens up at the top of the page you're visiting. Type in a note to yourself about the page, and it's automatically saved, reappearing whenever you visit the page again.

"It's very easy for you to leave notes on sites," said Manber. "If you ever come back to the same site, it's there for you."

Even better, all of your diary entries are automatically saved to a web page. If you compile listings of web sites, this is the easiest, quickest way I've ever seen to build your own mini-Yahoo style directories. Simply select the "see all diary entries" option and the page is displayed. You can then edit the source for this page with any HTML editor to build your own resource pages with web site listings and descriptions.

"A lot of people have tried it, but we believe that we've found the right way of doing it," said Manber.

Privacy Concerns

Search history information is stored on A9's servers, allowing you to view your past searches and viewed pages from any computer once you've logged in to A9. "We're just giving you more power to remember what you've done and be able to manage that," said Manber.

Server side storage of search activity has sparked some privacy concerns, though nothing like the frenzy swirling around Google's new Gmail service.

A9 has a well-written privacy policy that spells out clearly what kind of personal information is kept and how it's used. In addition to your search terms, there's a fair amount of other information that's captured, such as IP addresses, your clickstream path through various web sites, and so on, though this is standard practice on most web sites.

Importantly, A9 says that it can correlate information from the search site, the toolbar, and other Amazon-owned sites. "Among other things, A9.com and Amazon.com use this information to customize, personalize, and otherwise improve the services they provide to you," according to the privacy policy.

Given the usefulness of the tools A9 is providing, I personally have little problem with my information being stored and used in this way. I've been a long-time customer of Amazon, and have always found the company to provide excellent service and abide by its policies.

In short, I trust Amazon. Also from the privacy policy:

"Our business changes constantly, and our Privacy Notice and the Conditions of Use will change also. ... We stand behind the promises we make, however, and will never materially change our policies and practices to make them less protective of customer information collected in the past without the consent of affected customers."

If you're not comfortable with these policies, you can use an alternate service located at generic.A9.com which does not recognize your A9.com or Amazon.com cookie. Information gathered on generic.A9.com will not be used in data analysis (other than to detect abuse) and will not be used to personalize services.

Making Search as Reliable as Email

Manber is critical of the current state of search, and says there's a lot more work to be done before it becomes as reliable as email.

"If you send email, you expect email to get there, and there's no mystery," he said. "Search is much more difficult, but you still expect things to happen, and we're not there yet. Obviously search is not the same as email -- it's much much more difficult. We're still far from satisfying most users most of the time. We want to remove the frustration. We want to make it more intuitive."

Despite having a limited feature set in this beta release, A9 has some powerful features and bears watching closely for future developments. "We're experimenting with several different technologies," said Manber. "Search is not in its infancy, but it's also not very mature, and we want to be at the forefront. We want to invent new things, and this is a way for us to experiment with them."

Download & Install the A9 Toolbar (747k)
http://toolbar.a9.com/

System requirements:
Microsoft Windows operating system
Internet Explorer 5.5 or later (latest version)
An Amazon.com account

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