Alexa Offers Tools for Building Vertical Search

The search war continues to heat up as Amazon.com subsidiary Alexa Inc. has begun to offer third parties the ability to use its data to create specialized, or vertical search engines and results.

Alexa said it would offer tools to enable developers to seek specific information when doing Web crawls, such as images or music files or information about a certain topic through its Alexa Web Search Platform.

In offering developer tools to work with it, Alexa is following a well-worn path blazed by Google, Yahoo and others, which offer application programming interfaces to make it possible for third-parties to tap into their search indexes.

Alexa, however, plans to charge developers to use its platform to create search tools and conduct searches, saying that by using its technology, specialized search tools could be more quickly developed. The prices will depend on how much processor power third parties use on Alexa.

The firm will charge US$1 per CPU hour, $1 per gigabyte per year for user storage, $1 for every GB uploaded or downloaded to the network and $1 for every 4,000 end-user search requests as third parties basically rent the entire search platform.

Alexa cited the example of a Netherlands-based entrepreneur who created a search engine that lets users try to identify music through the melody only and is using Alexa tools to expand the number of cites its searches.

Analysts were mixed in their reaction, with some shrugging — in part because Alexa is not a search leader and in part because Alexa uses Google search to augment its own index of 4 billion Web pages– and others saying it could represent a significant turning point in the evolution of search.

Going Vertical

Some believe that vertical search, which would enable a consumer to drill down deeper into the Web’s wealth of data by limiting their search to specific categories — shopping, music and travel are some examples — has enormous potential going forward.

Search Engine Watch Editor Danny Sullivan said he was “underwhelmed” by the announcement and said the business model seemed to be out of step somewhat.

“It’s hardly new territory,” he said, noting that as early as 2000 some vertical search engine tools were released, only to fall out of favor because the robust ad-search market now in place had not yet materialized. “Search ads and verticals are both hot. But spending money to lease search services? That’s a remnant from the days before search ads, when search engines wanted to be paid for storage and processor time. Search ads made the leasing services model go away.”

Sullivan did say that the platform may help some startups get off the ground or prove demand for their services. He added that Alexa also faces a number of competitors, with startups such as Rollyo and Gigablast now offering similar approaches.

Big News?

Search expert and Google book author John Battelle said the move has the “potential to change the game.”

“Alexa and Amazon are turning the index inside out, and offering it as a Web service that anyone can mashup to their hearts content,” Battelle said. “Entrepreneurs can use Alexa’s crawl, Alexa’s processors, Alexa’s server farm — the whole nine yards.”

Battelle said the impact of the service will be determined by whether developers think using an existing platform will be easier, faster and cheaper than building their own. It might also force Yahoo and Google to “stare hard at their own search services and APIs, and think what they might do to compete.”

Amazon bought Alexa Internet in 1999 and used some of its technology, including its ranking of Web pages based on visitors, to create its A9.com customizable search engine, which has won largely favorable reviews for its approach to organizing search but is not seen as a significant threat to leaders such as Google and Yahoo.

Alexa has been a source of controversy in the past for its Web-traffic traffic tools, which have raised privacy concerns from some watchdogs.

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