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Amazon's A9 Launches Visual Yellow Pages

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A9's new nationwide yellow pages directory comes with a twist—thumbnail images of business storefronts that let you take a virtual walk through the streets of 10 major U.S. cities.

A9's new offering works much like other online yellow page directories. You can search by business name or category, and get a list of results that are near your current location, with each identified with an icon on a map. Click on a listing for a business, though, and the results are very different than what you see with other services.

In addition to basic business information, you also see a photograph of the business storefront. Beneath this is a series of thumbnail images showing other buildings on either side of the business. Click any of these thumbnails and the main image changes as well. By clicking sequential images you're effectively "moving" along the street, seeing businesses just as you would if you were walking down the street.

"We allow people from their computer to look at the street, to walk to the left, to walk to the right, to see the neighborhood, to see parking—it's virtually like you're there," said Udi Manber, president of A9.com. "Pictures get you information faster than any other way. Very often you remember a place but not its name. This is a very easy way to find it."

To create this system, A9 developed technology that combined digital cameras, GPS location systems and other hardware, and equipped vehicles with this technology to capture images of buildings and geotag them with location information. The company then hired drivers to cover "tens of thousands of miles" to acquire images, according to Manber.

The system is almost entirely automated, and drivers make their rounds through cities at normal speed. "We can do that at a very large scale very efficiently and at very low cost," said Manber.

The system is similar to the building facade photographs available through France Telecom's Yellow Pages site, Pages Jaunes that I wrote about last year. While it took professional photographers years to assemble the images used in the Pages Jaunes directory, it took A9 only a "few weeks" to capture the 20 million plus images used in its yellow pages system, according to Manber.

A9's yellow pages also lists businesses immediately adjacent to the one you're viewing, as well as those on the opposite side of the street, showing what's located on a full city block. While similar to Metrobot's grid-based search results, it's sparser, allowing you to see at a glance all of the businesses nearby.

A9 will allow business owners to modify listings and send additional content for inclusion in business listings, such as interior photographs, links to web sites and so on, for no charge.

To do so, use the Update Business Info button on the right-hand side of your listing in the Yellow Pages. At the moment, anyone can claim to be the business owner -- actual verification looks to be something that might come over time. The A9 help pages explain more

This is a clear show over the bow of Yahoo, which rolled out enhanced business listings for Yahoo Local last year. Yahoo charges $9.95 per month for enhanced listings.

A particularly cool feature allows you to call a business simply by clicking a button on a web page. Enter your phone number, click the button, and the system will automatically initiate a call between your phone and the business' phone.

Want to use the new service? The best way is to go to Amazon itself, where it has become a tabbed service. From the new Yellow Pages area, you can enter a location in the main box and what you're searching for in the search box on the left-hand side of the screen, to get results.

Oddly, there's no button for it if you go to the A9 home page on the right-hand side, where other buttons for History, Bookmarks, Discover and Diary are located.

Instead, over there, you have to perform a search -- say for dentists -- then select the Yellow Pages button that appears with others. Now you can see Yellow Pages results, though to localize them, you have to enter an address, city and state or US zip code.

Alternatively, you can bookmark this page. That generates an all-Yellow Pages results page matching the word "the." Change to the query you want to do, change from the default location that appears to what you want, and localized results will be returned.

Hopefully, we'll see a better interface into the system emerge at A9. The ability to enter a location and terms before conducting a search -- and to conduct only a Yellow Pages search -- would be welcome. Even going to the advanced search page, nothing like this is currently available.

Want to learn more about the service direct from A9? A How We Did It page provides video clips of the mapping, plus a map of cities covered.

Like other Amazon services, A9 yellow pages listings also include reviews, ratings, lists and other user-contributed content. Manber says that at some point the system will also add recommendations to search results, similar to the book, music and other recommendations that you get at Amazon.com.

A9 plans to aggressively continue its photography of U.S. cities, adding photographs on virtually a continual basis going forward. A number of cities beyond those included at launch have already been photographed and will go live on the service very soon, once quality assurance has been completed.

A9's entry into the online yellow pages space is sure to quicken both the pace of development and the competitive jostling among all of the players in both online yellow pages and local search listings. For something that was rolled out so quickly, it's already an impressive and useful service that is bound to improve rapidly. Manber declined to talk about any specific future developments, but acknowledged that continued development of the online yellow pages was a high priority for A9.

It's increasingly looking like 2005 might finally be the year when local search grows up and fulfills the promise that's been talked about for years.

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the A9 Joins Online Yellow Pages Fray discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

Our weekly roundup of search engine forum postings will appear in Monday's issue of SearchDay.

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