January 26, 2005

Amazon Rolls Out Multimedia Yellow Pages

By Evan Schuman, eWEEK

Shoppers wanting to see a store's neighborhood before venturing out into a potentially rundown city street corner will be able to do that by looking into a new interactive Yellow Pages site, being unveiled Thursday by Amazon.com.

The site—to be housed at the home of Amazon subsidiary A9.com—includes data covering more than 14 million businesses, A9.com CEO Udi Manber said in an eWEEK.com interview.

But the A9.com Yellow Pages goes beyond typical online Yellow Pages sites with the incorporation of location-specific video images. This would allow a visitor to see a restaurant listing and to be able to pan a series of images to see buildings on the left and on the right, which is part of a feature called Block View.

"We allow people—from their computer—to look at the streets, to walk to the left, to walk to the right, to see the neighborhood, to see parking," said Manber. "It's virtually like you are there."

There, yes, but not everywhere. The captured images initially cover selected merchants from 10 metropolitan areas: New York City, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, Denver, Portland, Ore., Seattle and Chicago.

The images are already somewhat dated, and customers might find it more useful to view footage from live, street-based Webcams that could show, for example, current crowding, available parking spaces and even whether the merchant's path has been cleared of snow. Manber wouldn't comment on whether that would be a future offering.

In the meantime, the images that the site will offer initially are striking. Amazon officials said they were captured with video cameras mounted on trucks that drove a total of more than 20,000 miles. That video was then integrated with Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite data along with Amazon proprietary hardware and software, so that particular images could be linked with specific merchant addresses.

Images—not moving video—is to be initially offered on the site to reduce bandwidth demands and accelerate performance. "It's easier to show on the page," Manber said.

In a statement, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos said it was a big job to integrate the multimedia on the site. "It took integrated GPS receivers, digital cameras, sophisticated geocoding software and a lot of driving," Bezos said.

"But 20 million curb-side photographs later, A9.com Yellow Pages lets you see where you are going before you get there."

The site also leverages VOIP (voice over IP) technology in a feature called Click-to-Call. This allows site visitors to type in their phone numbers when looking at a particular merchant. The site then immediately phones the site visitor and establishes an instant conference call with that visitor, using VoIP to make the free connection.

According to a prelaunch demonstration of the site given to eWEEK.com, A9's Yellow Pages also features currently available functions such as instant mapping, showing the site's relative geographic position next to other merchants that had been recently searched or that the site thought were relevant.

The service is free to both merchants and customers, with Amazon's revenue source being their current sponsors and ads. Beyond the default phone number, address, map and driving directions, merchants can provide additional information—including images—to enhance their site.

Being an Amazon site, the Yellow Pages also features many features familiar to Amazon's book-buying customers, such as customer reviews and group recommendations. Similar to the book side, the recommendations area is partly based on what others who have looked at those businesses also looked at.

That same community approach also allows the site to choose which image of a merchant to show as default. Site visitors can click next to their favorite picture, next to a Best Image? icon.

Other Amazon-like functions—such as being able to bookmark merchants for later easy viewing—are also featured.

Because the ads are free to the merchants, the site inadvertently omits one piece of information that many devotees of the dead-tree Yellow Pages find invaluable: the relative size of ads indicating how many advertising dollars that merchant spent.

Perhaps this is appropriate for the egalitarian Web: Dollars can take a backseat to information. Unless, of course, the merchant wants to become a sponsor.