For the past several months, a fleet of nondescript vans equipped with digital cameras and proprietary computer software has been traversing the streets of several major U.S. cities, continuously photographing businesses on every block.
Operating secretly under the code name "Project Mercury," the vans have transmitted more than 20 million images to a database compiled by A9.com Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon.com Inc. A9 set up shop last fall in Silicon Valley, far from the Internet retailer's Seattle headquarters, with the goal of creating new search technology for computer users to hunt for information and products on the Internet.
Above is a sample search return for a business
in New York City (click to enlarge).
Today, millions of the photos, coupled with their corresponding electronic yellow page listings, are scheduled to become available on the A9.com Web site. Only businesses that have paid to be in the A9 yellow pages will be featured. A9 will invite those retailers to take digital photos of their own that can be added to the Web site, potentially taking computer users inside stores to view merchandise.
"More than reading the yellow pages, it is seeing them," A9 chief executive Udi Manber said in an interview.
On the Internet these days, search is in the sweet spot, attracting billions of advertising dollars and getting attention from millions of computer users around the world. But search is not merely the province of the two most popular search engines, Google and Yahoo, where most people turn first when hunting for information and products online.
Like A9, a number of other companies, including Dulles-based America Online Inc., are building up their own search technology to attract and retain computer users looking for information.
"You definitely have a trend around large properties thinking that they need to have their own search at the center of their business. It is the traffic pump which is making their customers stick around or bringing customers to them," said Claude Vogel, chief technology officer of Convera Corp., a Virginia-based technology firm.
America Online, for example, offers Google to its users for searching the Web. But it also has plans to significantly expand the reach and scope of its own search offerings. It is creating a specialized AOL search service for comparison shopping, travel services and other categories.
The stand-alone services are important to AOL because when subscribers use Google, the two firms share the advertising revenue. When they use AOL's proprietary services, America Online keeps all of it.
Specialized services such as AOL's use a variety of techniques, including one called "clustering," which takes search results and synthesizes them to help computer users more quickly get the precise information they are seeking.