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Amazon Joins Search Engine War

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AP
Joining an increasingly crowded field, online retailer Amazon.com quietly launched a search service to help Web surfers find information — including products from its store — on the Internet.

Amazon's A9.com Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif.-based subsidiary, was released in test mode Wednesday but will compete for clicks not only with Google Inc., Yahoo! Inc. and others, but also Microsoft Corp. when it launches its own search technology later this year.

Like its competitors, A9.com offers both a Web site and an Internet Explorer toolbar from which users can enter search terms and block annoying pop-up ads. Searches also can be limited to just Amazon.com products — as well as the text of books available at Amazon.com.

Internet search tools — an industry now dominated by Google — will be a core component of any major Internet or operating system player in the future, analysts say.

A9.com's service currently relies heavily on a partnership with Google, which supplies many of the search results, and Amazon's Alexa subsidiary, which provides traffic, other sites of interest and additional information on specific Web sites. It weaves information from its partners into a single site.

Search results also include text ads from Google's sponsored links program.

Alison Diboll, an A9.com spokeswoman, declined to say whether the company plans to create its own search technology. She also would not say when the beta test would end but confirmed Amazon plans to use the technology to serve both its online store and the rest of the Web.

"Having this e-commerce search technology as a separate company is part of Amazon's continuing development from an online retailer to a technology services company," she said.

Google currently partners with more than 130 companies to supply search results, Google spokesman David Krane said. It's partnered with the Amazon online store since April 2003.

"A core component of our business ... has been providing access to Google from a number of entry points on the Web," he said.

Some filtering does appear to be taking place. A search of the word "porn" on A9.com, for instance, returned links to articles on the war against pornography, documentaries and anti-porn groups. A Google search on the same term returned actual porn sites.

Unlike other Internet search tools, users sign onto A9.com with a username and password from their regular Amazon.com account. A9 also offers an anonymous site that does not require a username and password but lacks some features.

A9.com's toolbar also provides a diary tool through which users can jot down notes about a particular Web site. Once entered, the notes can be read from any computer, after the user has logged on. The service also stores the addresses of sites visited and a history of searches.

A9.com made a strong effort to word its privacy policy in plain English, DiBoll said.

Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, said it's clearer than many now posted on the Web.

"I will give them kudos for the privacy policy in terms of its format, its readability and the fact they're giving viewers examples (of how information will be used)," she said.

She also said A9.com appears to be less invasive than Google's proposed free Gmail e-mail service, which will electronically scan messages so it can distribute relevant ads alongside incoming messages.

"If we're comparing strategies here, what A9 and Amazon.com are doing is a lot less intrusive from a privacy perspective than what Google is proposing in Gmail," she said.