A9: Searching the Web for Me

Amazon.com has become one of the world’s largest book sellers, and it’s not at all by chance. Their multitudes of cross-sell and up-sell techniques are very intelligently woven into a ‘personalized’ e-commerce experience. And now that they’ve turned their attention and expertise to the search world, we can anticipate some very exciting personalization features, to cater our searches specifically to ourselves. What are some of these features? How will they affect the world of search? Read on to find out!


Around the middle of April this year, an email landed in my inbox, bearing the title: ‘A9 it’. This was a play on the now popular term: ‘Google it’. That email introduced me to a potentially awesome new development in the world of search engines. A subsidiary of Amazon.com, cloaked in the mysterious moniker of “A9”, it was and still is generating some buzz.

The first thing I wondered is “what does A9 stand for?”. And I’m still wondering, as no one seems to know (or at least if they do they’re certainly not divulging that information). But I suppose there are far more important questions, such as:

  • What is A9?
  • What does it do differently than any other search engine?
  • What implications will this have on the search world?
  • Why is it so ugly?

I will strive to answer these questions as thoroughly as possible in the course of this article.

What is A9?

If you want a basic, over-simplified answer, I could tell you that A9 is just a new search engine. But in truth, it is so much more. A9 gives us a glimpse of what the future of search engines very well may be. It is clear that considerable effort has been put into creating an evolved search-engine, one that knows who you are and what you like. A search engine that returns results relevant not only to the query, but also relevant the person executing the query.

Now, as of yet, A9 is in beta form, so it’s somewhat questionable just how personalized and relevant the results truly are yet. But despite it’s youth, no doubt you will be excited as you read through some of the features and abilities already contained within the beta release!

{mospagebreak title=How is it Different?}

It’s very interesting to note that because of their partnership with Google, the search results you’ll get with A9 will be mostly the same as what you would with Google. I say mostly, because it appears that there is a small amount of filtering done on the page results by A9 before surfacing them (SafeSearch is an example of that, it’s always on). In fact, you’ll also receive a few AdSense ads with your search, as you would expect to with Google.

So why not just keep using Google? Well, A9 has gone the extra mile. Without even logging in (I’ll get to that in a bit), you have some very handy features at your fingertips. The more useful features are all magically contained within one little ‘site info’ button. No doubt you’ll feel a sense of shock and amazement at the number of features in this little button, not entirely dissimilar to that feeling you get watching all those clowns pile out of the tiny car.

The ‘site info’ button allows you to access useful meta data for each site, taken from Alexa (Alexa gathers anonymous web surfing data, and is also owned by Amazon). By simply moving your mouse over the button, you have a non-threatening speech bubble that appears. This bubble tells you the Traffic Rate, the number of sites linking to that site, the loading speed, and how long it has been online. Also, in a very Amazon-esque style, you can also see “People who visit this page also visit:”, and the list of related pages. Finally, a truly useful tool for all those people with the innate desire to be like everyone else in their web-surfing patterns! Oh, and I guess it could come in handy when you want to find other useful sites.

A small but useful feature is the A9 short cut. Every query is simply appended to the URL, like so: “a9.com/what is a dog” This makes it extremely fast to perform a search, as you can just type it into your address bar.

{mospagebreak title=Log In?}

Now once you log in (with your Amazon username and password), the other two columns become of use to you. If you don’t see these columns, look to the right, they’re probably collapsed. You can just drag them out! Go on, try it! (Internet Explorer only at this point)

Anyways, the last column displays your search history. This means all the terms you searched for, and how many times. This is very similar to your surfing history in Explorer. I haven’t quite found a use for this yet, but I have read the opinions of people who believe this one feature will usher in the next stage of search evolution.

Also of note is that once you’re logged in, you’ll see an indication of elapsed time since you clicked on any of the results. Again, this hasn’t proved entirely earth-shattering in usefulness for me.

What I find most interesting is the middle column, and not for it’s current abilities, but more for it’s potential. Right now it simply lists results from the “Search Inside the Book” engine. This is all good, but this is also where A9 is most likely to turn their attention to in the next revision of personalization. They will have information on what you’ve searched for, where you’ve clicked, and of course past purchases and behaviors on Amazon.com. So rather than some arbitrary list of books containing the text of your search, they will have the data necessary to show only the books (and DVDs, CDs…) we’re more likely to buy. And if you apply this logic to the search results, we may soon be seeing only the results that we’re more likely to click on.

Now that’s a powerful concept. Forget having to search for “Chinese restaurant West Toronto”. Once the search engine knows enough about us, we can just ask for a restaurant, and whatever we’re most likely to enjoy, whatever people like us have gone to; we can expect those results first. Now this may be in the future yet, but the very near future nonetheless!

As you would expect of anything to do with Amazon, A9 remembers who you are on your next visit, no need to log in again. This is somewhat useful as you already have your recent searches at your fingertips. I would have to say that this is much better than letting Internet Explorer remember only what you’ve typed into the search text field, because you also have some definition around time frames. It’s much easier to find a past search where you can also remember approximately when it is you were searching for it!

So I’m sure you’re as impressed as I was with all of these fancy features. But what are the implications of this start-up site for the highly competitive search engine world?

{mospagebreak title=The Impact on the Search World}

Will A9 soon bump the giants of search off of their pedestals? I highly doubt it. After all, Google must be fairly comfortable that this won’t happen if they’re OK to provide the back-end for the project! However, it is obvious that people generally prefer a personalized surfing experience, even if it’s just a simple search.

It is also very enjoyable to have extensive information about a site at your finger tips. Perhaps more than enjoyable, this ‘Site Info’ button could become quite addictive, as we get used to obtaining useful site info with a simple move of the mouse.

So as far as Google, Yahoo, and MSN are concerned, there’s probably no huge threat to them here. But I’m sure that if any of the A9 features really do become popular, we’ll be seeing similar tools popping up throughout the SE world.

There are mixed thoughts on this subject though. At this point I am prone to side with those who see A9 as a nice search engine, with a few fancy features to be copied. However, I clearly lack vision though, as there are others who see great potential here. It has been observed that this memory-endowed, knowledge-based approach to searching could be the next Google killer. Feel free to hop on the forums, and share your opinion about this!

And does this new search engine mean anything for us as web administrators and/or search gurus? Do we need to learn new techniques to achieve higher rankings within A9? Do we need to worry about which books will surface with our website? Well, so far no, as the results are still drawn from Google. But who knows what the future holds.

Why is it So Ugly?

Sorry, despite all my research, I wasn’t able to find an answer for this one. Unfortunately the year put into developing the beta engine doesn’t seem to have included time for UI consideration. The brown on brown color scheme gives one the overwhelming feeling of being in a very old and dull library (how fitting for Amazon). Hopefully the next revision will allow us a degree of personalization with our own color scheme!


I suggest you draw your own conclusions about A9. But to do so, make some use of it. Try to control your fingers for a couple weeks – as they instinctively try to type google.com, try a9.com instead. Download the toolbar, annotate a little with the diary feature, have fun. You may find yourself hopelessly enamored with the future of personalized search!

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