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Amazon Tests Personalized Search Engine

E-tail giant Amazon.com quietly took the wraps off its A9 search engine this week, elbowing into Google and Yahoo's turf with a personalized search engine.

The test version of A9, in development since October, uses Google's Web search technology and tries to take advantage of Amazon's strength in personalization. The search engine requires users to sign in with their Amazon user name and password. In addition to Web search, users can use Amazon's Search Inside the Book feature and easily see their search history.

“This is a reflection of Amazon's evolution from being an online retailer to a technology services company,” said Alison Diboll, an A9 spokeswoman.

Amazon set up A9 as a separate company under the leadership of Udi Manber, a former chief scientist at Yahoo, to develop search technologies for its site and for licensing to other sites. Amazon currently uses Google's search technology on its site.

“They're making a clear statement that they're moving into the search space,” said Chris Sherman, associate editor of Search Engine Watch, an industry newsletter. “You have to wonder what their ultimate objectives are. Are they going to be a competitor to Google? Are they going to cooperate with them?”

Diboll called Google “an extremely important partner.” She added: “I can't begin to speculate about what may or may not happen.”

The A9 privacy policy spells out that the search engine will match a user's search history with personally identifiable information obtained through activity on the Amazon site.

For now, A9 offers only a few personalized features, mostly storing users' Web search history. The search results page is divided into three columns: the left is Web search, the middle is Search Inside the Book and the right contains search history information. The site uses Google's advertiser listings.

A9 also offers an Internet Explorer toolbar, which has the usual search toolbar add-ons like a pop-up blocker and text highlighter. Its diary feature lets users make notes about Web pages that can be called up later. A9 uses Alexa, another Amazon property, to give Web site information, such as other sites that people who went to that site have visited.

The toolbar collects search history from A9 and other Internet search engines and sites. For example, the toolbar records searches on Google and Yahoo. The toolbar's privacy policy explains that A9 will use this information to customize services.

Google's toolbar, in contrast, records only Google searches and does not tie them to personal information.

Personalizing search has long been a goal of the top search engines. Google in late March rolled out a test of a personalized search engine that tailors search results based on a profile users build. Google Personalized, however, does not correlate search data with personal information.

Yahoo, which already has personal information for 141 million registered users worldwide, has tread lightly in the area. It lets users set the language for their results and the number that are displayed on the results page. Its shopping search engine gives users a slider to change their results based on the importance placed on product attributes, such as price and brand.

“Personalization is absolutely one of the Holy Grails for all search engines,” Sherman said. “It's been tried for years, and it's usually failed. What we're seeing now is it's starting to gain some traction, some stickiness and some interest.”

At an industry conference last month, Tim Cadogan, vice president of search at Yahoo, said the company would move carefully to avoid any backlash.

“The critical thing in any talk of personalization is to make sure the user has control,” he said.

A9 makes its correlation to personal information explicit in its privacy policy. It also has released an alternative search site, generic.a9.com, which does not collect Web surfing information to share with Amazon data and does not require users to log in.

“I don't like this tracking, but at least Amazon makes it clear that this is their intention, and this is exactly what will be happening,” said Daniel Brandt, a privacy advocate who has criticized Google's privacy policies.

Privacy concerns have dogged Google in recent weeks over its new e-mail service, Gmail. Among complaints from privacy groups, they note that Google has not explicitly said it will not correlate personal information from e-mail users with search data. In Google's privacy policy, it states that it may share information among its services “for the purpose of providing you a better experience.”

Other efforts to personalize search include a startup called Eurekster that lets searchers tap into their circle of friends and contacts to improve search results. It shows registered users which searches are popular among their circle of friends and gives weight to search results found relevant by others.

Search has emerged as a key driver of e-commerce. In a poll conducted last Christmas season by Nielsen//NetRatings, Harris Interactive and Goldman Sachs, 35 percent of online shoppers said they used Google to search for online retailers.

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