Is Amazon's A9 Benign?

If you're a search geek like me, you may have been wondering when Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) was going to officially launch its search engine, A9.com, and exactly what it was going to do with it. Today, Amazon said that it's all systems go, officially launching the site with a new look and some added features to boot, some of which could provide an obvious boon to its existing services.

My very first choice for search is generally Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) , but I've used A9.com when I have a topic in mind and want to know what books are available on it. That's one of the interesting things about A9, its ability to cull book results (including a peek inside) if searchers so desire.

In more pop culture focus, Amazon has also integrated results from its popular Internet Movie Database (popularly known as IMDb), which many Web surfers turn to for movie trivia. There are also "reference" results, complete with encyclopedia descriptions.

Also nifty: If you pass your cursor over a "site info" button, A9 gives you an idea of what a site offers without requiring a click over. (Ask Jeeves has a similar feature, which yields snapshots of site results, called "Binoculars.") A9's version contains potentially useful information such as traffic rank, sites that link to it, and other related sites surfers hit. Other benefits include Web-based bookmarks, popup blocking, and a "diary" feature to make notes about sites.

Despite A9's gee-whiz features, including search results that are flavored by previous searches, I wonder whether the obvious e-commerce link could sour the perception of user friendliness. For example, to install A9's toolbar feature, an Amazon account is required. While savvy, it could feel too heavy-handed to users.

Although Google, Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) , and Ask Jeeves (Nasdaq: ASKJ  ) all rely on advertising to bring us search for free, the for-profit aspect implied by pointing users to Amazon's own storefronts could be an alienating influence, despite the benefits.

While it was in beta, I kind of thought that Amazon's A9 was just a casual dalliance into the search space, fueled by its old-school Internet credentials and a desire to keep up with the Joneses. However, I can see it may very well be a force to contend with in the space between e-commerce and search -- that is, if folks don't feel a bit too pinpointed and profiled. I'm curious as to how this experiment will turn out.

Amazon.com is aMotley Fool Stock Advisorpick, a stock marked for success by the Gardners quite some time ago. Try the newsletter out risk-free for six months. Or give your two cents on A9 and all things Amazon on our Amazon.com discussion board.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. She wishes she knew exactly what "A9" stood for.


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