Thursday, July 03, 2008

Is Amazon Google's biggest threat?

This is a bit of a stretch, but a Greg Linden post, "Amazon page recommendations", suggests that Amazon may be offering a new service soon, one that could turn Amazon into one of the core information sources on the Internet. Greg points to a post by Brady Forrest of O'Reilly Radar that outlines the service in more detail.

From Brady's post:
"Amazon is turning its personalization engine towards webpages. You can test it on your site via the new Page Recommender Widget (sorry if the link doesn't work you, it's only open to affiliates). The widget only considers pages on your website. As you can see from the screenshot above, it shows a combination of products and webpages.

Amazon provides the following info:

In order to generate page recommendations, the Page Recommender Widget must be placed on every page of your site that you'd like to be recommended. Page recommendations will appear in the widget over time, as Amazon analyzes traffic patterns on your site. You'll typically see recommendations for your most popular pages first, with the remainder of your site filling in over time. The length of this time depends on the characteristics of your web site. During this period, we'll still display individually targeted Amazon products in the widget.

The widget learns from your visitors and how they move through your site. If you only have a couple of pages the widget won't do much for you. I do not know if the widget restricts recommended pages to the same domain or if all of an affiliate ID's sites will be included. I wonder if a visitor's Amazon history will be used by the Recommendation Engine."

Brady goes on to theorize that this may be the beginnings of a new recommendation web service from Amazon, and I think he may be on to something. Amazon has perhaps the most sophisticated usage tracking software out there on its retail sites, and no one really cares because the data is used to enhance the shopping experience so much. I can imagine that a service which allows any site to determine context and preferences for any given user (or at least the users with Amazon IDs) would be highly profitable.

Now the stretch. Is this building up an extension of human knowledge that not only tracks what information a user seeks, but what they actually use? Given that, is there the long term potential to beat Sergey and Larry to a specialized brain extension, as described in Nick Carr's The Atlantic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?":

"Where does it end? Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”"
Now imagine Amazon actually anticipating your interests before you even realize them consciously simply by tracking the context in which you "live" online. Is that AI enough for you?

Now, Google does some similar tracking with its Web History service, so I'm probably way off here. However, I get the sense that Amazon Web Services is pushing Amazon to think in terms of a larger vision, one in which it plays a central part in any and all commercial activities on the web, making it the smartest marketing machine on the planet--smarter in that sense that even the mighty Google itself.