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A9 search

Amazon has been pumping up its A9 search engine this week. It’s been getting stacks of press, and I even noticed this evening that an A9 search box has replaced the standard Google search box over at IMDB. (Probably not surprising, since Amazon owns IMDB, too.)

Amazon has been pumping up its A9 search engine this week. It’s been getting stacks of press, and I even noticed this evening that an A9 search box has replaced the standard Google search box over at IMDB. (Probably not surprising, since Amazon owns IMDB, too.)

I remember taking a look at A9 when they soft-launched the beta earlier this year, and thinking, “meh.” Looking at it now, though, they’ve really thrown some coals on the fire. Multiple lists of search results on a single page make it a power searcher’s dream. It makes heavy use of personalisation, automatically keeping track of your search history. And if you install the A9 toolbar, it will even provide the “Personal Search” functionality I was so interested in having back in February:

“With the A9 Toolbar all your web browsing history will be stored, allowing you (and only you!) to retrieve it at any time and even search it”

The only problem is, now that it’s here, I feel somewhat reluctant to actually use it.

Amazon are quite up-front about what they’re going to do with people’s A9 browser history: they’re going to correlate it with their Amazon customer history to improve the customer experience they provide. Their privacy policy says pretty unambigiously:

“PLEASE NOTE THAT A9.COM IS A WHOLLY OWNED SUBSIDIARY OF AMAZON.COM, INC. IF YOU HAVE AN ACCOUNT ON AMAZON.COM AND AN AMAZON.COM COOKIE, INFORMATION GATHERED BY A9.COM, AS DESCRIBED IN THIS PRIVACY NOTICE, MAY BE CORRELATED WITH ANY PERSONALLY IDENTIFIABLE INFORMATION THAT AMAZON.COM HAS AND USED BY A9.COM AND AMAZON.COM TO IMPROVE THE SERVICES WE OFFER.”

I was a little bit freaked out when I visited A9 earlier in the week and found the “Hello Mr Martin Sutherland” welcome message at the top of the screen. I didn’t remember ever signing up with A9, and a quick look through my password safe showed that I didn’t have a separate user name for it. But because A9 is an Amazon subsidiary, they share their cookies, and so they can use my Amazon login to identify me.

Cross-domain cookie sharing is often considered a bad thing, because it indicates information leakage. How happy are you if Company X decides to suddenly share your private information with Company Y without notifying you–even if you had previously agreed to their privacy policy? (Though probably without reading it.)

A9 is a wholly owned Amazon subsidiary, so technically they are the same company. Also, I like, trust and respect Amazon as a company. (Heck, I applied to–and still want to–work for them.) Put together, these two statements should generate a nice bit of syllogistic synergy to give me warm fuzzies about A9. But they don’t. There’s something about the relationship, and the sharing of personal information that makes me feel…icky.

It’s hard to quantify exactly where the Ick Factor starts. I’m happy enough to leave Amazon in custody of all my book, music, and DVD browsing and shopping information. I have absolutely no problem with that. In fact, I want them to use it to improve my shopping experience.

But also giving them access to all my search history, and potentially all my browsing history? Um, no.

I think that A9 recognizes this. In addition to their fully personalised site, they also offer generic.a9.com, an anonymous version of the search engine. You still get the multiple search panels, but they don’t tie your searching back to a specific identity.

But is the non-personalised search really that much better than, say, raw Google? I think it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” case. Without personalisation, A9 is only an evolutionary step in terms of search; but with personalisation they go too far.

So why don’t I have the same icky feeling about Google, which I’ve been using almost exclusively for several years now, and which also has the ability to track its users’ search history? Well, I kind of do when it comes to Orkut, their social networking service. And this is, I think, the crux of the matter: I am happy enough entrusting specific chunks of my on-line life to specific companies. It’s when they start clubbing together to aggregate my personal information that it all becomes icky.

And then we’re back at national identity cards. Sigh.

We’re only a decade or so into the Internet Age, and there’s still a long way to go in terms of clarifying mores and defining a social contract between individuals and collective entities. This is all going to be really big and important over the next ten years, isn’t it?

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1 reply on “A9 search”

Thanks for the heads up on this. I won’t be going anywhere near a link that says “A9” now. And, additionally, you’ve got me re-thinking my connection with Amazon.

Having only sold ONE book through linking to them for over a year (and never got anything for that, either), maybe it’s just time to cut the cord.

What we need, actually, is a law limiting the lifetime of Corporations, like they had in the 1700s.

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