With local search one of the hottest topics in the industries these days, it's no surprise that Internet giant Amazon.com is getting some attention for the unique offerings included in their online Yellow Pages. I had the chance to chat with A9 vice president of product development Barnaby Dorfman and senior PR manager Drew Herdener yesterday afternoon to get a guided tour of their local search features.

Amazon, once known simply as THE place for online book sales has spent the last several years growing into a one stop shopping place for almost anything that can be sold online. That massive expansion, along with the development of an outstanding user generated content offering has put Amazon owned A9 in an interesting position when it comes to offering local search information. Rather than simply offering a standard phone number and map enabled address listing, A9 is able to rely on Amazon's massive community of users and existing content platform to generate unique localized information.

Dorfman explained Amazon's quest for an improved local search environment by pointing out A9's goal of "helping people find and discover things in their local area that they would want to buy." To that end, A9 goes beyond acting as a yellow pages. Much like the popular product reviews associated with Amazon stores, A9 users have the ability to submit reviews of businesses listed in the yellow pages. Want to review your favorite restaurant, or warn others about a bad experience with a local contractor? A9 gives you the ability to do both. While there are currently sites out there that offer consumer reviews, most of them tend to be specific to an industry like TripAdvisor's hotel reviews or ChefMoz's restaurant reviews. A9 goes beyond these to allow reviews of any company listed in the Yellow Pages.

It's not simply about allowing consumers to share information about businesses either. Dorfman went on to explain that one of A9's goals is to encourage both consumers and businesses to come to the site and update listing information with photographs of the business, Web site addresses, email addresses, details about product offerings, even updates to the categories that a business should be listed under. Dorfman explained that as with user submitted reviews, business listing updates are subject to editorial review before being posted, to protect the integrity of the information. The response so far has been outstanding, with Dofrman commenting that "[it's] great to see small, little interesting businesses telling us about themselves..."

While individuals and business owners are invited to upload photographs of businesses listed in the directory, A9 is also taking a proactive approach in adding those images themselves. Trucks armed with digital cameras and global positioning software have already worked their way through ten major U.S. cities in order to capture tens of thousands of miles worth of storefront images. The images are meant to show the business as it looks from the street front and are setup to allow users to "walk" their way to the left or right of the business to see what else is in the area. For example, a few clicks to the right of a Chicago Starbucks showed me a small city park that would the perfect spot to stop and enjoy a hot chocolate and the morning paper.

A9 expands on this idea by including an area that lists other businesses on the same street as the listing you are currently viewing. For chain businesses, A9 will also list and link to other locations in the same city. Looking for a Hilton but the one you prefer is booked? A9 provides a list of all other Hilton's in the area along with their address and phone number.

One of the unique features offered by A9 local search is the "click to call" feature. The idea is that a user that has located a business in the listings can select the "click to call" button, enter their own telephone number and be connected by phone to the business. It works by having A9 dial the user's phone number along with the businesses phone number and then conferencing them in together. Right now, A9 picks up the charges for the call, even if it is long distance, though it's possible that future updates will result in a pay-per-call model being introduced.

While I'm not a regular user of the A9 engine itself, I have been quite impressed by their yellow pages and the site will likely become my main source of local search in the future. Mostly because of the integration of Amazon's popular user content. I've always been an Amazon junkie when researching product purchases and with A9, I now have the ability to do that same thing with local restaurants. While Dorfman was not able to give any exact figures on how many localized business reviews have been entered into the system so far, he did say that they've been quite pleased with the results and the interest shown by their user base.

If you haven't taken the time to check the site out yet, it's certainly worth a look. You can head directly to A9's yellow pages at http://www.amazon.com/gp/yp.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
March 17, 2005

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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