Nearly all the raw material to run a fairly complex Internet search service is now available, for lease, from online retailer Amazon.com Inc.
For a fee of as little as $1 a day, Amazon will provide access to an index of 5 billion Web pages plus the Internet-based tools to create new twists to mine the information warehouse and present findings to an audience.
At the core of Amazons latest move is a rather novel idea for Internet search, Amazon believes. But its based on an old business model whereby a company builds a product for other companies to buy or lease, develop further, then brand as their own.
In this case, the product is a search engine developed by Alexa, a San Francisco-based company that Amazon bought in 1999.
"Alexa and Amazon are turning the index inside out, and offering it as a Web service that anyone can mash up to their hearts content," wrote search analyst John Battelle on his Weblog.
Manufacturing and communications services have long been using this "white box" business model.
The plusses are that businesses dont need to spend as much developing their products, and the negatives include the homogeneity of products all based on the same technology.
The move benefits Amazon because its both a new revenue stream and a channel to draw more users to its Web operations.
Taken in another context, Amazons search-engine-to-go strategy is a return to the late 1990s, when the search engine industry hadnt quite so refined its advertising initiatives and depended on leasing out services, a la Alexa.
"I guess I get to be the underwhelmed one," said Searchenginewatch.com editor Danny Sullivan. "Its hardly new territory. Thats a remnant from the days before search ads, when search engines wanted to be paid for storage and processor time. Search ads made the leasing services model go away."
Other analysts pointed to recent, creative uses of open search APIs by the community and businesses.
"The example of Google Maps API has been really interesting, and Amazon is saying Alexa is their version of that," said Avi Rappoport, principal consultant at Search Tools Consulting of Berkeley, Calif.
"Instead of a map of the world, Amazon has a map of the Web—a database of the Web and map of the relationships between them. And [the company] expects people can do interesting things with that information."
Rappoport said Alexa could help refine Internet comparison shopping and language search.
"Certainly the national security agencies are already doing similar things to track down terrorists," she said.
In addition, the technology could boost the quality of information presented to search customers, she added.
"Relationships is what its all about," Rappoport said. "Think about mining billions of pages of the Web. This is one unusually interesting way to mine, and its not your generic database query. Its a lot more than that."
"Amazon hasnt found any particularly powerful use for these things, but the success that the other open APIs have seen means that its guessing that theres a lot of creative impulses out there. And this can spark more interest in Amazons [open APIs]," she said.
A debate has begun as to the response, if any, from Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., America Online and other major search engines, which only now make available only a tiny sliver of their secret algorithms for development purposes.
Battelle asks: "I do not know [yet] if using this service will be cheaper for developers and entrepreneurs than rolling their own. Does this change the game?"
"But I can only imagine that indeed it is, or Amazon would not be doing this."
Editors Note: This story has been updated to add comments from analysts. David Morgenstern provided additional reporting for this story.