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 iggybacked 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.