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A9 and 'the Wright brothers phase of search technology'

Much lately about search engines. A9, newly emerged from beta, has been summarised by Lance Arthur, posting at glassdog, as: depth of search (Yahoo) + more meaningful results (Google) + personalisation (A9). As Lance notes, A9 also enables you to see different kinds of results in the same page, separated into panes. More importantly,

(A9) keeps track of what you’re doing, providing feedback and reminding you about which results you used in past queries; it also watches everyone else’s clicks and gives you feedback about what other people did with the results.

The success of this “Discover” feature (your results are called “Recover”) depends a great deal on how many people adopt A9 as their search engine of preference, of course, but over time it may be the one thing that separates the search winners from the also-rans.

Udi Manber, the presiding magus behind A9, calls this 'a search engine with memory' (NYT). There are questions: as John Battelle has asked, even as he celebrates the arrival of A9, 'will people get the habit of using it?'. Then, we have to wonder why Amazon is doing this, taking Google search results and building this new front end. Search engines and shopping go hand in hand, of course, but A9 goes beyond any narrow, Amazon-centred purpose and is fully able to compete, as a distinctive search tool, alongside Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

Response to A9 has been generally very good: see, eg, Future Now and Marc Canter ('What I see is an adaptable, dynamic interface which is really simple to use and understand'), and, to encourage the diffident, there's a discount for A9 customers shopping at Amazon. But not everyone has been so positive. Jeremy Zawodny had this to say:

... search is a skill but it really shouldn't be. The Microsoft research is shining a light on this fact. Our software needs to work harder to pay attention to and react to what we're doing—especially when we're failing! If only the search engine could stop after a few tries and say, "hey, I'm guessing that you're looking for something like..." You know, just like any reasonably bright librarian might. (You do remember libraries, don't you?) Yeah, it'd probably freak some people out, but what if it actually was helpful?

Amazon's A9 is an interesting step in evolving search, but it really seems to be going in a different direction. Rather than making search a "lean and mean" operation the way that Google had, A9 is trying to make searching the web a different kind of experience. They're encouraging exploration while also trying to tie in your previous behavior (past queries).

Elsewhere, Jeremy Zawodny added, 'if we must search, I believe it should be a very natural and conversational thing' (and see Greg Linden's remark to the same effect). Trouble is, as John Battelle says, 'It's really hard to do. Such an approach to results works particularly well with limited and/or structured data sets (ie "I see you're looking for a movie. Did you want a comedy or a drama?") but not so hot with horizontal, unstructured data.'

However, that doesn't mean folks aren't working on it (or that some engines, like Teoma or AllTheWeb, don't have some solutions already, and Yahoo's "Also Try..." is close as well). The problem is that it's hard to make the choices presented relevant enough of the time - so that overall, the service is really, really useful, as opposed to often right, but often also wrong.

In any event, and pace Jeremy, I want a variety of approaches from search engines, depending on the task, my mood, my deadline, etc, but I would also love to have what Ramesh Jain calls a 'steering wheel' (see another John Battelle post): 'If I can be shown how the items are distributed in time and space, I can start controlling what I want to see over this time period or what I want to see in that space'. (In the last of this bumper crop of Battelle links, it's well worth reading his brief comment on the purchase of Furl by Looksmart and his piece on Raymie Stata.)

How all this will be pursued by Google is a matter of some anticipation. Google needs to do something about the shortfalls in its current search engine (there's an interesting post on this at Google Blogoscoped). Will an improved Google search engine come together with the also much talked about Gbrowser (Jason Kottke, blogzilla, Ars Technica) and the anticipated move towards more fully integrated services? On this note, and closer to home, I long for a decent local computer search engine, something we've been hearing for a while now that Google intends to roll out : X1 is powerful, but locks up my ThinkPad's CPU for inconveniently long periods of time, and I haven't found Copernic desktop search much kinder ... I am playing with Quicksilver on my office Mac: as Merlin Mann says, 'Quicksilver is moving well beyond its modest roots as an application launcher' and Tiger will bring further benefits through 'access to a very well structured data source (Spotlight) and a whole slew of new action possibilities (Automator)' (see here). This might become another reason for looking at a PowerBook as my next machine.