By Rob Hof When Amazon.com's (AMZN) highly anticipated search site, A9.com, launches on Sept. 15, the biggest surprise may be what's missing. The site, in test mode since last April, has some useful bells and whistles, including the ability to keep logs of every search and easily scan the full text of thousands of books. But oddly enough, it lacks what many people speculated would be its raison d'etre: There's no special way to search for products on Amazon.com or anywhere else.
Far from a shortcoming, though, this approach is actually a clear signal of Amazon's even broader ambitions. Its year-old search operation intends to go far beyond simply making it easier for consumers to find stuff to buy. A9 Chief Executive Udi Manber says he wants to do nothing less than help people finally bring information overload to heel and let them organize the entire Web in their own personalized way.
In the process, A9 is aiming for the Holy Grail of the Internet business: to be the prime place for connecting people searching for just about anything -- information, products, or services -- with those who can provide them. "The goal is not to push stuff on you," says Manber. "We're looking at search from a very broad perspective."
SEARCH-PLUS. Ultimately, that puts Amazon on a collision course with most of the Web's major players. That includes not only Web portals Yahoo! (YHOO) and Microsoft's (MSFT) MSN but also Web marketplace eBay (EBAY) and, of course, the newly public king of Web search, Google (GOOG). All are angling to become not just portals or search sites or shopping malls, but places to get anything done online. To be, as the techies call it, the Web's killer app. "Google and everyone else involved in search are going to be watching this very closely," says John Battelle, who writes Searchblog, a widely read Web log on the online search business.
Manber disavows any goal to knock Google off its perch -- at least, not yet. Good thing, because A9 faces some huge obstacles if it's to become the prime nexus for consumers and commerce on the Web. For starters, it's using Google's own search engine to produce basic results, to which A9 adds its own features. Indeed, A9 hasn't yet come up with a solid business model.
While some undisclosed amount of revenues trickle in from the ads it allows Google to place alongside search results, Manber says he anticipates devising other ways to make money. But he won't say what they may be. And ultimately, A9 could end up knocking heads with Google so much that, as Yahoo did a couple of years ago, it will have to create or buy its own search-index technology.
LONG-TERM MEMORY. Those aren't A9's only challenges. With just a few dozen employees -- nearly all in engineering -- to Google's 2,300, A9 can hardly match the breadth of Google's vast development efforts. Finally, tapping the power of A9's searches requires more skill at figuring out what the search tools can do. And most of the features require people to download a browser toolbar, which for now, only works with Microsoft's Internet Explorer. All that could limit who will take the trouble to use it. "It's a significant hurdle," notes Battelle.
Even so, in just the past five months, A9 has added a raft of intriguing features not seen on any other search site. Most of them are available only through the toolbar that resides near the top of the Web browser. By signing into the toolbar -- using the same logon as they use on Amazon.com, if they're Amazon customers -- they can tap into several new tools to refine and track searches.
Essentially, they allow people not just to search for information but to track and manage it as well. One column of the search page is a time-stamped history of every search a user has made -- including every Web site visited. So, if you remember visiting an interesting site several months ago, it's easy to find it just by scrolling back through the history list. Those sites also can be dragged with a mouse and dropped into a bookmark column for even easier recall. In addition, A9 has a diary feature, which allows you to attach notes to Web sites so you can be reminded later what was important about the page.
BOOKS, TOO. Another new wrinkle: All of that information resides on Amazon's own server computers, not on the individual's PC -- as is the case with browser bookmarks, for example. That means the information is available with a password on any computer, eliminating the need to laboriously synchronize data on different computers.
Amazon also is tapping into special stores of information that it has been developing for years, with no apparent business reason up to now. Several years ago, for instance, it bought the Internet Movie Database, a Web site chock full of information on every movie and actor. Now, people can target searches to that database. They can also target searches to Amazon's own database holding the full text of thousands of books, as well as an outside reference site call GuruNet.
Manber says those, and many other specialized databases to be added later, help people narrow searches without having to use arcane commands and word combinations known only to search wizards. Finally, A9 is trying out a test feature called Discover, which suggests sites you might like to visit, based on one's browsing history and that of other people who made similar searches.
All this, contends Manber, allows people to organize the Web the way they want to see it as they browse. "It's a search engine with a memory," he says. "The big thing that's missing in most search is context -- and it's the context of you."
USERS' PRIORITIES. So why no e-commerce search, as so many people expected to see? Manber says that's because A9 didn't want to limit its potential reach too soon. While A9 is owned by Amazon, it has its own board made up of Amazon executives and is located in Palo Alto, Calif., far away from Amazon's Seattle headquarters. It plans to provide technology not only to Amazon but, potentially, to outfits that may want to license it.
And that raises the ultimate question: Where's the money here? One source might be corporate licensing of the technology, just as Amazon has essentially rented out its own Web site to thousands of outside merchants from Target Stores (TGT) to individual sellers. Battelle also suggests that a source of income would be "Buy it now" buttons alongside search results that happen to be books, movies, or other products. If someone types "Clark Gable" into the search box, a buy button could be placed beside each movie listed.
If Manber has any intentions of forging closer ties to Amazon or other e-commerce players, he's not yet saying. "We will do that if we think it's a very good user experience," he says, but adds that A9 hasn't yet found a way to ensure that. For now, he insists, "the point isn't to bring one more customer to Amazon.com." But with Amazon paying the bills, it's a good bet that will be on A9's "A list" before long. Hof is BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau chief