January 27, 2005 6:52 AM PST

Amazon search pictures your destination

Amazon.com is mapping the streets of the United States in an ambitious digital photography project to drive people into local businesses.


The online retailer's search unit, A9.com, is masterminding the project, which will eventually pair digital photos of storefronts and their surroundings with more than 14 million U.S. business listings from around the country.

Early Thursday, the company announced the first phase of its service, called A9.com Yellow Pages, with 20 million images from 10 cities, including Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

People can call up a business listing to find contact information (with an Internet-to-phone dialing service), reviews, a local map and a photo of the business' facade. With a feature called "block view," people can also click to see adjacent businesses or surrounding neighborhoods.

"You can virtually walk down the street in any direction," A9 Chief Udi Manber said in an interview. "This is a way to see the yellow pages, not just read them."

To accomplish this feat, the company has sent a handful of vans onto the streets of America, touring around with digital video cameras strapped to their rooftops. The cameras are synchronized to a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver so that A9 can map local addresses to their images once recorded onto a computer hard drive. Because GPS can be inexact, the company has proprietary software to further map some images with addresses.

So far it has taken photos of roughly 1 million businesses in 10 metropolitan areas: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, Ore.

A9, which took the wraps off its personalized search engine in September, is a dark horse in a cutthroat race to dominate Web search. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are the leading contenders in the marketplace and are continually adding new search innovations for the desktop, video and local businesses. While still only four months old, A9 can't be counted out, though, given the powerful muscle of its parent company.

The Yellow Pages service is marked by a new tab at Amazon.com and includes the retailer's standard community feature, which allows people to review and rate products or services. Manber said that feature will factor heavily into how the company expands and updates photos and business information.

A9 has licensed the business listings from Axciom. The company also partnered with eStara to allow let visitors "click to call" local businesses from the Internet.

 

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