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What's in Jeff Bezos's bag?
With its latest Web moves, Amazon.com is handing a lump of coal to Google and Yahoo.
December 16, 2005: 10:40 AM EST
By Erick Schonfeld, Business 2.0

NEW YORK (Business 2.0) - You may think of Amazon.com as the place to do your online holiday shopping, but CEO Jeff Bezos increasingly thinks of his company as a giant software platform. And like Google or Microsoft or Yahoo, one of his goals is to get other people to build Web sites and businesses on top of its technology.

Evidence of this ambition surfaced earlier this week when Amazon.com made an announcement that had the blogosphere abuzz, but attracted little attention elsewhere. It is opening up its Alexa Web crawler to any programmer who wants to build his own search engine.

A Web crawler is the key building block for a search engine because it is the software that automatically reads billions of Web pages and indexes them all. A search engine then searches the index that the crawler creates.

So what does Amazon, a Web shopping company, have to do with Web search? Well, to begin with, it owns a small search engine called A9, which already uses Alexa's crawler. Every time you look for a book or a blender on Amazon's own Web site, you are using A9 technology.

But more to the point, search and shopping on the Web may be merging together. If you think about it, when you shop online, you're really searching for the thing you want to buy. What would happen if people went to Google or Yahoo instead of to Amazon every time they were looking to buy something on the Web? That thought must scare the bejeezus out of Bezos.

Sure, people would still find links to Amazon products in the Google or Yahoo results, but they would also find links to the same products elsewhere. To compete, Amazon can try to build its own general search engine, as it has with A9. And it can also use its technology platform to open up the floodgates for other companies to compete in search, which is what it is doing with Alexa.

Think of it this way: Amazon just eliminated the cost of entry for any entrepreneur who wants to get into the search game. Crawling the Web is an expensive proposition these days. It takes thousands of servers, hundreds of terabytes of storage, and massive bandwidth capacity. You would need millions of dollars and at least a year's hard work just to replicate what Alexa does.

As the company puts it on the Alexa blog,: "Now, for less than the cost of an iPod, [an entrepreneur] can get into the search field and begin inventing and creating ... and all of us can begin reaping the benefits of an expanded search space with hundreds of wholly new search services being created by anybody with an idea and a credit card."

Perhaps Amazon cannot compete toe to toe with Google, Microsoft and Yahoo in the search engine market. But it can help spark the creation of a thousand little search engines that together might chip away at its competitors. That seems to be the plan, anyway.

Entrepreneurs who want to create, say, a health search engine, a music search engine, or a video search engine can use the Alexa Web index as a starting point. Amazon will even host the search engine for them. Instead of costing millions of dollars, Amazon will charge just $1 per gigabyte of storage used or $1 for every 50 gigabytes of data processed, which sounds very reasonable. Alternatively, someone who comes up with a better search algorithm than Google's PageRank (don't hold your breath) could now apply it to the Alexa index.

With one deft stroke, Amazon is taking one of the most valuable search assets and turning it into a commodity that anyone can buy on the cheap. It's Amazon's way of saying, "Merry Christmas, Google."

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For more on Amazon.com's software ambitions, see "The Great Giveaway," Business 2.0, March 2005.

For more on A9, see Erick Schonfeld's recent column "Where the Web Meets the World".  Top of page

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