Last month, as many of you probably know, Amazon.com’s A9.com subsidiary formally launched the A9 search engine and toolbar. In beta since April, the full A9 release has added some interesting functionality and clearly launched Amazon as a serious player in the search arena. A9 licenses basic search functionality from Google and ads search results from four other databases, including the Internet Movie Database, GuruNet.com and Amazon’s own "Search Inside the Book" feature. The A9 engine also enables users to search within and sort through their searching history. Moreover, a searcher’s login name can be tied to their purchase history on Amazon in order to further personalize their search experience. As we’ve seen, any time purchase and behavioral information is tied to personally identifiable information, there are usually privacy concerns.
So then why hasn’t A9.com received more scrutiny? Why hasn’t some privacy advocate fired at least a cursory shot across Amazon’s bow? All I’ve read in the traditional press, as well as the blogosphere, are brief mentions that there might be privacy issues with A9.com. I’ve seen nothing that would even approach the uproar over Gmail. Perhaps everyone is focused on the upcoming election. Maybe we’re all enthusiastically awaiting the new season of "The O.C." Or maybe we’re all just too busy making money again to worry about such things.
My sense is that it’s a combination of factors. One thing that can’t be ignored is the way Amazon launched A9. There’s a right way and a wrong way to bring a technology platform to market. And while there are very few sure bets when dealing with public perception, there are a number of ways that companies can hedge against getting battered over privacy issues. In other words, Amazon did a lot of things right in launching A9.
It’s all about the value prop
When a company introduces a new technology platform into the marketplace, it’s very important that they proactively articulate the privacy value proposition to consumers. Consumers want to know exactly what private information they are giving up, how that information is going to be used and what value they will get in return. Companies that do a good job of defining the privacy value proposition for their product stand a much higher chance of obtaining marketplace acceptance.
Of course, it helps to offer something that consumers actually want. Don’t get me wrong. Gmail has some very nice features, but A9 offers a tool that has an immediate, tangible benefit to a consumer’s online experience. The idea is that if you can empower me to get what I want when I want it, I’m more likely to view your tool as helpful instead of intrusive. Sometimes the distinction between the two is extremely narrow.
A way to opt-out
Amazon has created a generic version of A9 for those who don’t want their data collected. While some have argued that offering the generic site is a tacit admission that there are privacy issues around the standard site, I don’t necessarily agree. There will always be a group of consumers who don’t want to share their personal information with a company, and smart companies should allow those people to opt out of the data sharing while still providing them with the basic services. A9.com’s generic site acts as a natural opt-out for those with a heightened sensitivity to issues of privacy.
One of the quickest ways to raise the collective dander of privacy advocates is to fail to provide notice. So from my perspective, Gmail was bound to receive a high level of scrutiny. The most indicting privacy issue with Gmail is not that it scans emails per se. The problem is that Gmail scans incoming emails from people who don’t have Gmail accounts. People who don’t necessarily know that emails going into Gmail accounts are scanned. These folks don’t have the opportunity to opt-out. The only way to develop a valid privacy value position is for all parties to know what they’re getting. And as it’s currently designed, that is just not possible with Gmail.
A good rep doesn't hurt
Amazon has built up a reputation with consumers as a trusted protector of consumer privacy. For example, a research study conducted this past spring by TRUSTe and the Ponemon Institute revealed that Amazon received high marks for respecting consumer privacy. Amazon was rated the #4 most trusted company -- behind only eBay, American Express, and P&G. Companies that have strong privacy practices are more likely to be trusted by consumers. And one of the benefits of trust is that consumers are more likely to give trusted companies the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their privacy practices.
I don’t mean to imply that Google isn’t trusted. In fact, the company is widely respected for putting their customers first. But Amazon has built a reputation as a company that uses customer data to enhance user experience, while Google historically has not collected personal data from consumers.
The bottom line
Nobody other than the folks at Amazon seem to know which direction the company will eventually take with A9. The company could very well release additional functionality that will be considered in violation of consumer privacy standards. Sometimes it’s about pushing the envelope. And as we continue to split the hairs between useful and creepy, companies should be careful not to push too hard or too fast.
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Alan Chapell is a consultant focusing on Privacy-Marketing -- helping companies understand privacy and incorporate consumer perception into product development. He has been in the interactive space for more than seven years with firms such as Jupiter Research, DoubleClick and Cheetahmail. Mr. Chapell is the New York Chapter Chairman of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, and he publishes a daily blog on issues of consumer privacy.