Amazon subsidiary introduces Web search engine dubbed A9

Move reflects urgency among Internet giants to keep pace with Google

April 16, 2004|By Chris Gaither | Chris Gaither,LOS ANGELES TIMES

A secretive subsidiary of Amazon.com Inc. introduced an Internet search engine Wednesday, highlighting the growing urgency among the Internet's biggest players to control the online search market before Google Inc. runs away with it.

The search engine, from six-month-old A9.com Inc., builds on technology licensed from Google but adds features pulled from Amazon's bag of tricks, such as letting users post reviews of Web sites and suggesting others they might like. Amazon previously had revealed almost nothing about A9.

The unveiling of the test version of A9 shows how important the search business is for Internet companies. Analysts said it spoke volumes that even Amazon had been spending as much time thinking about search strategy as grocery stores spend thinking about where to put candy racks to generate the most impulse buys.

"It's become quite apparent in a very short period of time that search is the hot spot of the Web today," said Kenneth Cassar, director of strategic analysis for Nielsen/NetRatings. "Everyone wants to be like Google."

Although Amazon is based in Seattle, the company set up A9 in Palo Alto, Calif., creating speculation that it was gunning for Silicon Valley darlings Google and Yahoo Inc. But Amazon's use of Google's technology raises questions about whether the two companies are cooperating or competing.

The A9 operation is led by former Yahoo technologist Udi Manber. The plan is to use A9's search technology on its own site and license it to other Web operators, which Amazon wouldn't name. The search engine "is part of Amazon's evolution from being an online retailer ... to being a technology services company," said Alison Diboll, an A9 spokeswoman.

As the Internet matures, big players such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft Corp. have invested heavily in better search technologies so that they can capture users' attention - and dollars - when they want to find something online. At the same time, Amazon has grown into more than an online store.

Queries on A9 search not only the Internet but pages of books that Amazon has scanned as part of the "Search Inside the Book" feature on the parent company's Web site. Users can also search Amazon's Internet Movie Database, keep histories of their previous searches and, through a downloadable toolbar, take notes on Web sites that they can retrieve later.

To get most of the benefits, A9 users must sign in with their Amazon account name and password. The potential to link search requests with online shopping patterns might bother privacy advocates. A9.com's Diboll said tracking features were being used only to improve search results, but she wouldn't comment on plans.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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