A9 – Interview with Barnaby Dorfman VP of Local Search

I am very pleased to feature an interview with Barnaby Dorfman from A9. (This interview was conducted at the end of March, but due to some issues on my end I was unable to publish it until now.)

Hi Barnaby, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about A9’s visual yellow pages. Can you give some background about what your role is at A9?

My pleasure. As the VP of Local Search, I lead a team that created and continues to develop the Yellow Pages on A9.com and Amazon.com. Here’s a short bio about me:

Barnaby Dorfman is vice president of local search at A9.com, Amazon.com’s search subsidiary. He leads the team that developed the A9.com Yellow Pages. Prior to joining A9.com, Barnaby was director of services at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com), also a subsidiary of Amazon.com, where he created IMDbPro.com.

Barnaby joined Amazon.com in 1999 when the company acquired Bibliofind.com, where he was general manager. His first role was leading a team to develop product categories in the Amazon.com marketplace.

Barnaby’s past positions include technology consulting to Fortune 500 companies.

He earned a bachelor of science in international business from California State University of San Francisco and a master of business administration from the Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College

Since A9’s visual yellow pages is different from the local search available at other major engines like Google and Yahoo, what kinds of user missions are best served by it? When is visual search particularly useful? How about any unexpected results that make you scratch your head and might be areas for improvement?
On A9, our goal is to make search more efficient. At Amazon.com, our goal is to be the best place online for users to find and discover things that they want to buy. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then our >20 million images have created a lot of value for users and online shoppers relative to a simple directory with just a name address, telephone number and a few categories.

Businesses put a lot of effort into selecting a location, creating a storefront, and branding themselves through signage and displays. The Block View ™ feature allows all of that work to be conveyed, via the web, to potential customers.

Online shoppers can now get a sense of place before visiting. We have all had the experience of being surprised (positively and negatively) when visiting a business for the first time, often found via print yellow pages. Using the A9.com Yellow Pages, you can get a feel for the neighborhood, other businesses in the area, even see the parking situation. Online shoppers can now save time when planning a day of shopping in physical stores.

We have definitely been surprised at how users have created collections of links to interesting images from Block View ™, which have shown up in a number of blogs. Turns out that you get some pretty artistic pictures without trying when you capture millions of images. We’d like explore additional ways for people to find and share interesting things they see in Block View ™.

Would you mind sharing a personal anecdote about something you recently used visual yellow pages to successfully search for?
Sure, last Friday I wanted to get together with some friend in San Francisco. I really like Ethiopian food and I found this restaurant in our Yellow Pages: http://www.amazon.com/gp/yp/B0004AN77O/. Liking the look of the place and area, I used our “Click to Call” feature to make a reservation for free. The restaurant is about 90 minutes from our offices, so before going I printed a map and directions from the site. Beyond that, I “walked” up and down the street and found that there was a parking garage 1 block away. When we got near, I knew exactly where we were and where to park, even though I’d never been there. I’d sent the above link to my friends and they found it no problem as well. We all arrived within minutes of each other and a good time was had by all!
Furthermore, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area last year and the A9.com Yellow Pages have made the settling in process much easier than past moves.

I find the exterior photos of businesses to be useful. But for a lot of businesses, like restaurants, I would love to also see interior shots. Hopefully businesses and users will add these themselves, but is there any plan to encourage this process?
Absolutely, we have given the links prominent placement on the page and will be reaching out in a variety of ways to encourage submissions. If you think about it, there is significant overlap between the busy people who run local businesses and the 47 million shoppers who took advantage of the convenience and selection at Amazon.com in the last year. Additionally, beyond interiors we’d like to see other kinds of images uploaded, including logos, maps, menus, and marketing collateral.

On the -Here’s how we did it- page, it says “The whole process (except for the driving!) is completely automatic”. How successful was the process of using GPS data to associate businesses with photos? And what kind of metadata ends up being associated with a business? As a follow-up, since the process is automated, is that why sometimes the default image is just slightly off?
We feel it has been very successful and extremely efficient. With nearly 1 million businesses covered in less than a year, this simply would not have been possible without recent technology innovations. As you surmised, the automated nature of our collection process allows us to reliably display a segment of the block near where the business is located, ergo the name “Block View ™.” Given the irregular nature of the physical world, deciding what view best represents the business is subjective, which is where our user community comes in. Below each thumbnail image, there is a check box titled “Best Image?” that users can click to vote on what they think is the most representative picture. This builds on other community created content at Amazon.com, including customer reviews.

I would love to be able to start with a location on a map and then work backwards to see photos of nearby businesses. Is that something that’s in the works?
We listen carefully to what our customers tell us they want, and you are not the first to suggest this. We are still in Beta and looking at many of enhancements. You can expect to see the site evolving.

What happens with businesses that were missed in the first round? And what about Canada and other countries?
This is an ongoing program for us. We will continue to expand coverage in the markets already included in Block View(tm) and add new geographies. Right now our focus is on the United States.

Do you have the luxury of conducting user tests to gauge success rates? And do you analyze query logs to see what users are searching for?
We do. In fact, we are very focused on customer interaction with our site as well as direct feedback. We believe that this customer focus is the key to continuous improvement.

Can businesses grab A9’s photos and use them on their own sites?
Our current site license and user agreement do not explicitly allow for this. However, I would like to develop ways to allow businesses to share in the use of these images.

Can a person or business request the removal of images due to unfavorable content, poor photo quality, privacy issues, or any other reason?
A9.com and Amazon.com take privacy very seriously. There is an “opt out information” link on every detail page. This takes users to a form they can fill in to report any individual concern they may have.

Are you considering ways to integrate web search with yellow pages? Right now I don’t see home pages or other URLs associated with business listings. Plus things like external reviews, articles, etc.
Over time will we continuously expand the amount of information available for each business. Right now, anyone, including business owners and managers, can submit information directly via the website. There is a button on each business detail page titled “Update Business Info.” This links to a form with fields for a URL/Link to the business website, description of products/services, hours of operation, etc….basically anything a business might want to communicate to prospective customers. After submission, we review and publish the content for free. Here’s an example of a business that added a link to their website: http://www.amazon.com/gp/yp/B0005P1Q8K

Visual yellow pages is a distinctive way to think about local search. Where did this idea come from to integrate photographs with business listings?
We have a long tradition of using images to help online shoppers find and discover things they want to buy…this is a natural extension. Consider books, which started with little more than title, author, and price. Now you can search and view millions of pages of over 120,000 books through Search Inside the Book(tm). Similarly, you can see millions of images of businesses from your office or home computer using Block View(tm).

Visual yellow pages is a fun thing to play around with. But how do you answer people who say that it’s more of a novelty than a useful search tool? (In case you’re wondering, my personal position is somewhere in the middle. I think as it stands now it is useful, but I see the current implementation as being just the first step of something bigger.)
First, I’d say try it out, especially to find and visit a business you’ve never been to. The feeling of deja vu you’ll get when you arrive is quite impressive. Second, there is a lot more to our A9.com Yellow Pages than block view. We have extended the Amazon.com user interface to include listings for more than 14 million businesses. This approach to finding and discovering products/services is familiar to and used regularly by tens of millions of online shoppers. Furthermore, we are offering Click to Call, an easy to use calling service to all businesses and users for free. Overall, our goal is to make it easier than ever for customers and businesses to find each other.

Thank you very much for your time. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Thank you! I’d just close by encouraging businesses to use our free services to promote their businesses and shoppers to explore their cities and towns in this new way.

About Chris

I'm Chris and I've worked in the search engine industry since the late '90s.

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5 Comments on “A9 – Interview with Barnaby Dorfman VP of Local Search”

  1. Nice interview, Chris. Visual yellow pages is groundbreaking work and I’m glad people are working on it. A9/Amazon has done a good job with their initial beta offering though I feel they have a ways to go before this is front and center. I find the UI too confusing (e.g. what’s with the Amazon footer and giving me a link to a shopping cart? http://www.amazon.com/gp/yp/B0005P1Q8K/104-8025286-9707137) The functionality VYP provides is great but in truth I forget this form of search even exists. Where’s the stronger branding and why hasn’t this site seeped into my consciousness? I get the feeling they are not fully comfortable having a larger audience right now due to beta phase. That’s understandable. Overall, this site — or the future version I expect it to be — has the potential to make it into the small handful of websites I keep at my fingertips. Keep up the good work.

  2. I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t really explored this a9 feature. It’s pretty swank, and for me would be quite useful as nostalgia, once the midwest gets added in. Weird to think that eventually every commercial street in the US could get photographed. Definitely a better yellow pages product than others I use, if only for the clean interface and lack of as much forced-choice as the others have.

  3. Oh, and what kind of drink is a9 yellow pages? I’m gonna say Vodka Tonic – everyone can use one, and it’s quite refreshing…

  4. Vodka tonic? OK, a good solid drink, though I think A9 deserves a Cosmopolitan. After all, they are focusing on major cities right now…

  5. Hm, but isn’t a cosmo kind of a girl-drink? I think it should be a little more universal.

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