Amazon.coms Search Launch Triggers Second Thoughts

A9.com follows its own course with its user interface and personalization but raises doubts over its usefulness and consumers' privacy.

Amazon.com subsidiary A9.com may have officially entered the search wars on Wednesday, but its effort so far is drawing lukewarm user reviews and raising privacy concerns over its core personalization features.

A9.com, now out of a beta begun in April, is taking a different approach from major search engines such as Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. It has focused squarely on adding a new user interface and personalization on top of existing search results, rather than on developing its own Web index.

The search service brings together Web and image results from Google, movie information from the Amazon.com-owned Internet Movie Database Inc., reference information from GuruNet Corp. and book-text search from Amazon.com.

A9.com CEO Udi Manber declined to say whether the Palo Alto, Calif., company is planning to develop its own index to replace Google. The site also uses sponsored links from Googles AdWords program.

"Our goal is to innovate and invent new things in search," said Manber. "Search is not a solved problem."

On the user interface side, A9.com displays each set of search results in its own column, which users can view side-by-side by clicking a series of tabs on the right of the interface.

More in line with its parent company, though, A9.com is heavy on personalization. Users are prompted to log in, using the same log-in as for Amazon.com, and A9.com collects and saves users search history. The site also includes a browser toolbar download, which lets users store bookmarks and notations about Web sites.

While A9.com has a unique design and interesting customization features, it lacks innovation in the core Web search technologies of indexing information and returning relevant results, said Melissa Burgess, director of business development at search-engine marketer Impaqt, in Pittsburgh.

"Theres so much to go through, I wonder if the typical searcher will want to utilize this stuff or will want a clean, simple interface as Google has provided over the past three to four years," she said. "I cant imagine that they are going to go head-to-head with Google."

John Rhodes, a Web-site usability specialist who runs consulting company Oristus, said that A9.coms interface might be attractive to some power users but that it is not tailored well to average users.

Most users lack the screen size to properly view multiple columns of search results, he said. A9.com allows up to eight columns to appear at once.

"The interface is just too complex for the average users," said Rhodes, in Binghamton, N.Y. "[The service] is not significantly better for users to make the switch."

A9.coms biggest shift from other search engines is its extensive use of personalization, one of the emerging trends among search engines. For example, like Amazon.coms suggestion of books based on users past habits, A9.com suggests searches and Web sites based on users past searching history.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read more about startup Eureksters search engine personalized through social networking.

To privacy advocate Pam Dixon, those personalization features carry with them more risk than reward. Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, advised consumers to avoid those features by blocking Web cookies or use A9.coms alternative search site, generic.a9.com, which does not rely on an Amazon.com log-in.

Next Page: A9.com upfront about tracking.