November 17, 1999 4:40 PM PST

Amazon floats new service from Alexa buy

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Amazon.com's acquisition of Alexa Internet has finally borne fruit with the introduction of a new software application in the red-hot arena of consumer product reviews.

Amazon posted a Web page devoted to the new tool, called zBubbles, describing it as a way for users to access product recommendations, as previously reported. The "bubbles" in zBubbles refers to the speech bubbles commonly used with animated characters; the prefix is the "z" in Amazon.

"zBubbles shows you comments from other buyers about where to go to get the best prices," reads a description on the zBubbles home page. "And, if Amazon sells the product, you can buy it from any page on the Web." The service can be accessed from a small icon that resides on the browser toolbar.

With zBubbles, Amazon is finally showing its hand regarding one of its more puzzling purchases, Alexa, which was made in April. Until now, Amazon has kept quiet about how it plans to leverage the company's products and expertise.

Alexa, a wholly owned subsidiary, is well known for its technology--integrated into browsers from Microsoft and Netscape--which provides a dynamic list of related sites wherever a user visits on the Web.

With zBubbles, Amazon follows a growing crowd of Web companies that aim to compile consumer product reviews and pricing information. Rivals include Deja.com and ePinions for consumer reviews, as well as software applications (or shopping agents) such as RUSure.com.

Amazon has long provided consumers' opinions on its own site, soliciting reviews on books and other products. But the company's entry into the market for cross-site comparison shopping is a strategic one, because agent technologies that canvas various sites looking for the best prices could threaten the brand-driven success of well-known sites such as Amazon.

zBubbles neutralizes some of that threat by offering pricing information from Amazon.

But companies such as Amazon walk a fine line by simultaneously presenting unbiased product recommendations and pitches for their own products.

"There will be the unbiased information posted by a user and biased information when the product is available from Amazon," said Alexa chief executive Brewster Kahle in an interview. "That's where the tricky aspects come in. We don't want to be a floating ad for Amazon. Who would care?"

Kahle said Amazon is using Alexa to further its goal online, which is to help users find anything they want via the Internet. "That initiative is what we're a part of," Kahle said. "It's not about pumping more sales down their books channel."

zBubbles follows a format popularized by companies such as Third Voice, which provides a place for users to post comments on a particular Web site.

"zBubbles is kind of a Third Voice for shoppers," said Kahle, who added that zBubbles will include more and more of its own annotations. "We're going to try to find as much information based on [search software], anything we can find to help populate the bubbles with high-quality information automatically."

Kahle said that the site, which launched late last week, is in a trial stage and the company is soliciting feedback from users.

The service, which went into development following the Amazon acquisition, is the second product from Alexa. The flagship product, which bears the Alexa name, provides site popularity metrics and yields data on related sites.

Amazon currently is offering zBubbles only for use with Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, version 5, and on the Microsoft Windows platform. An official launch of the product is scheduled for early next year.

 

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