A9.com Expands Image-Based Local Search

The Amazon.com offshoot launches virtual city-block tours for five more local areas as it builds its Yellow Pages service.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.—A9.com has taken another step in its quest to provide virtual tours of U.S. neighborhoods and business, adding images from five more cities to its online Yellow Pages.

A9.com CEO Udi Manber announced the additions Tuesday during a keynote address at the Kelsey Group Inc.s Drilling Down on Local conference here. Amazon.com Inc.s search startup in February began incorporating digital images of city blocks as part of its local search results from 10 major cities.

Joining those original local areas are images from Washington, D.C.; Phoenix; Miami; Houston; and Fargo, N.D., Manber said.

All told, A9.com has collected 26 million digital images since launching its online Yellow Pages in beta, and about a million business storefronts are included in the images, Manber said.

In a feature it calls Block View, A9.com displays thumbnail images of a city block within business listings. Users can click among the images to view the individual business as well as nearby buildings, Manber said.

"It gives you a whole new experience and allows you to do search in a new way," he said. "You can search without giving keywords. You search visually."

For example, the ability to stroll along a block could let consumers search for a business whose name they forgot by navigating among the thumbnails of a nearby business, Manber said.

A9.com isnt alone in the move to add real-life images to local search. Google Inc. earlier this month unveiled an option in its Google Maps service to view satellite images of cities and, in some cases, blocks. The birds-eye view is also available as part of the maps displayed in local-search results.

Manber also described the ups and downs of A9.coms manual process of capturing local images. Employees of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company literally drive around cities in trucks equipped with digital video cameras, GPS (Global Positioning System) equipment and laptops in order to snap and store the images.

While he declined to answer questions about A9.coms plans for local search, Manber said the company eventually will retrace its photo-taking footsteps in order to keep the images updated.

"Were not going to drive only once," he said. "When were done with the U.S., then were going to do it again."

Also, the A9.com Yellow Pages lets users submit reviews and information about local businesses, including images. In one example from a Seattle bookstore, patrons posted images of the bookstores resident cats, Manber said.

Beyond local images, A9.com recently began focusing on aggregating external search sites within its Web site. The company last month launched A9.com OpenSearch, which uses an extension to RSS (Really Simple Syndication) to allow other sites to syndicate their search engines to A9.coms site.

So far, about 162 vertical search options have become available through A9.com, Manber said. At its launch, about 37 specialized search options were available through OpenSearch.

Asked whether A9.com is working on ways to intelligently suggest the correct vertical search engine based on a query, Manber said it is but provided few details.

"Its one thing for us to provide 160 choices and another for users to know they exist and to decide when to use them and how," Manber said. "Suggesting the right [one] is very important."


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