Amazon Joins The Search Party

A9.com is a feature-laden search tool. Now it needs to find itself a business model

When Amazon.com Inc.'s (AMZN ) highly anticipated search site, A9.com (AMZN ), launched on Sept. 14, the biggest surprise was what wasn't there. Sure, it has plenty of useful bells and whistles, such as the capability of keeping logs of every search and scanning the full text of thousands of books. But while clearly advancing the state of online search, A9 lacks what many expected to be its raison d'être: shopping help. There's no special way to search for products, on Amazon.com or anywhere else.

What seems to be a shortcoming, though, actually signals the e-commerce giant's even broader ambitions. Its one-year-old search unit -- a wholly owned company it started in Palo Alto, Calif. -- intends to go well beyond helping consumers find stuff to buy. A9 Chief Executive Udi Manber says he wants to help curb information overload by allowing people to organize the Web in a more personal way. "The goal is not to push stuff on you," says Manber. "We're looking at search from a very broad perspective."

In the process, A9 is aiming for the Holy Grail of the Internet business: to be the prime place for connecting people looking for just about anything -- information, products, or services -- with those who provide it. That position has proved lucrative for search king Google (GOOG ), Web portals Yahoo! (YHOO ) and Microsoft (MSFT )'s MSN, and online marketplace eBay (EBAY ). Manber insists it's too early to know how he'll make money from such a hub. For now, A9 is simply taking a small cut of sponsored search results it runs from Google, whose search engine it uses for basic results. Ultimately, observers speculate that it could license technology to other companies, just as Amazon has rented out its Web site to outside merchants. A9 also could place buy buttons alongside search results that link to books or other products for sale on Amazon.

No matter what business model emerges, A9 puts Amazon on a collision course with most of the Web's major players -- especially Google, which declined to comment. Nonetheless, says John Battelle, who writes Searchblog, a Web log about the online search world, "Google and everyone else involved in search are going to be watching this very closely."

Manber disavows any intention to knock Google off its perch -- just as well, because A9 faces serious obstacles. For one, Google and rivals like Yahoo and Ask Jeeves Inc., could copy A9's features if they prove popular. Moreover, A9 could butt heads with Google so hard that it has to create or buy its own search technology, a tall order. Says Jim Lanzone, a senior vice-president at Ask Jeeves: "Without owning the core search technology, it will be tough to compete with companies like Ask Jeeves, Google, and Yahoo."

GET YOUR FACTS IN ORDER

Even so, A9 boasts a raft of intriguing features not seen on any other search site. A9's tools 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 -- and every Web site they've ever visited. In addition, there's a diary feature, which lets you attach notes to Web sites so you can remember later what was important. A test feature called Discover suggests sites you might like based on your browsing history and that of other people who made similar searches. And because all this is stored on Amazon's servers, it's available from any computer by signing in.

Amazon also is making it easy to target searches to special stores of information. Several years ago, for instance, it bought the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), a Web site full of data on movies and actors. Now, at A9.com, people can target searches to IMDb and others, such as Amazon's database of the texts of thousands of books -- with more to come.

None of this is yet likely to give nightmares to the folks at Google, which earned $79 million on $700 million in sales in the second quarter alone. But it's a good bet that Amazon.com's little search engine will be making bigger waves before long.

By Robert D. Hof in Palo Alto

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