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Thursday, January 27, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Amazon launches a Yellow Pages-like service today

Seattle Times technology reporter

Amazon.com dispatched a fleet of trucks around the country last year to do nothing but film businesses and commercial areas in major cities.

The e-commerce giant wasn't looking to spy on the competition. Instead, it was building a vast collection of digital photos for a Yellow Pages-like service that launches today on its A9.com search site.

The new service, called A9.com Yellow Pages, is designed to help users find information about businesses near them. Run a search for bicycles, for example, and it will serve up a listing of nearby bicycle sellers, including addresses, phone numbers and locations on a map.

In 10 cities — including Seattle — those results include digital photographs of the stores and their surrounding neighborhood. That way, users can click to see what else is on the same street.

Those photographs — 20 million in all — were collected by trucks outfitted with digital cameras and global-positioning systems that drove up and down the streets of major cities. Amazon combined the photographs with the geographic location of the camera when it took them, and matched that information with business addresses.

In some cases, the photographs aren't completely precise. Amazon encourages users to find better pictures and allows businesses to submit their own photographs. Users can also post reviews of businesses in the same way they can review books on Amazon's main site.

Online Yellow Pages are nothing new. Several companies, including InfoSpace and Microsoft's MSN division, offer ways to look up nearby coffee shops and pizza joints. Amazon's service is the first to incorporate images in such a dramatic way.

"We're doing something that has never been done before," said Udi Manber, A9.com's chief executive, in a video the company is posting to its Web site today. "We're showing you the images of the businesses in the Yellow Pages."

The service will also connect users with businesses over the phone. If someone in Seattle wants to call a restaurant in New York City, for example, he or she can find the restaurant on the site and click a button labeled "Click to Call Business." Amazon's automated software will call the user's home phone and connect a call to the restaurant. The service is free for registered users.

While directing users to other retailers may seem antithetical to Amazon's business model, the company said it is increasingly becoming a marketplace that brings together buyers and sellers.

"Our goal is to be the best place to find and discover things you want to buy," said Barnaby Dorfman, A9's director of product development.

Local search is one of the most competitive areas in the search industry these days. Google and its rivals have all rolled out versions of technology that allows users to search within their hometowns, hoping to bring in big advertising dollars from the mom-and-pop shops that would normally have gone to newspapers or phone books.

The A9 service, found at A9.com, "is going to motivate others to add visual information to their directories," said Greg Sterling, an analyst who tracks the local search market for The Kelsey Group, a Princeton, N.J.-based consulting firm. The Kelsey Group estimates that by 2008, local search providers will receive $2.4 billion from advertisers.

For now, Amazon's only source of revenue from the service will come from advertiser-sponsored links on the page, Dorfman said.

Amazon could be expecting the service to drive traffic to A9, which in turn will direct users to Amazon's main site, said Dan Geiman, an analyst at McAdams Wright Ragen in Seattle.

"They're partly viewing it as just another service that they can add for their customers," he said. "Maybe it's going to increase loyalty to Amazon."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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