Amazon's A9 loses snazzy features

Amazon.com is stripping its A9 search engine of the features that won it praise from experts but earned it little attention from users.

In a note posted Friday on A9's Web site, Amazon.com explained that it has redesigned the search engine to make it easier and faster for users to find information.

As part of the changes, gone are glitzy local-search features such as maps, business listings and storefront photos. Amazon.com also discontinued the search engine's browser toolbar.

Also significant is that A9, originally billed as "a search engine with a memory," apparently has become amnesiac, losing its history, bookmarks and diary features.

The history feature gave users a list of sites they had previously visited, while the diary function let users save notes about their Web browsing adventures. Meanwhile, the bookmarks feature let users save links to their favorite sites.

Another casualty of the A9 changes is the "instant reward" program that gave registered users credits on Amazon.com purchases.

The "memory" features, along with the local search capabilities, in particular the street-level storefront photos, earned A9 consistent praise from industry observers as a trailblazing search engine brimming with innovations.

The man credited with ushering in these snazzy features, Udi Manber, quit as A9 search chief and joined Google Inc. in February, a loss that raised eyebrows and prompted questions about Amazon.com's future as a search engine provider.

"A9 continues to innovate in the area of search, which includes operating A9.com and enhancing product search on Amazon.com," an Amazon.com spokesman wrote in an e-mail message on Monday. "A9 is shifting its priorities to areas where it can provide the greatest benefit for customers."

New features introduced on Friday include giving users the option to list all the results of a search on one page, as well as a new user interface designed to make it easier for users to add specialized search engines to A9 from more than 400 sources.

Despite praise from industry analysts, A9 hasn't managed to gain traction with users. In August, A9 accounted for just 1 million searches conducted in the U.S., out of a total of 6.5 billion, giving it a market share of less than one-tenth of one percent, according to comScore Networks Inc.

The changes to A9 probably signal a new search strategy for Amazon.com rather than a withdrawal from that market, said Matt Booth, an analyst at The Kelsey Group.

It's likely Amazon.com wants to strengthen A9's core Web search functionality and focus on increasing traffic to the site before moving on to other types of searches, Booth said.

A9's retreat from local search may seem puzzling at first, but on closer inspection, it may make a lot of sense, because local search is a very difficult and complicated service to offer, Booth said.

"When you do a redesign, you have to make tough choices, like limiting your scope to improve your core product," he said.

It wouldn't be surprising to see A9 return to local search after solidifying its Web search traffic, because interest in local search is very high, as are the ad revenue opportunities tied to it, the analyst said.

Users can retrieve their A9 history file and diary entries. More information is at http://www.a9.com.

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service
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