Alan Taylor does not work for Amazon.com. He joined the Associate Program, signed up for Amazon Web Services, downloaded the API and built Amazon Light.

Amazon Tools, Marketing and Community

The goal is pretty straightforward: "To be Earth's most customer-centric company where people can find and discover anything they want to buy online." The implementation is complex, massive and dynamic. Amazon's marketing structure is a lesson in cost-efficiency and brilliant self-promotion. Amazon's associates link to Amazon products in order to add value to their own Web sites, sending people to Amazon to make their purchases. It costs Amazon practically nothing. Some associates create mini-Amazons -- satellite sites that do new things with Amazon data and send people to the mothership when they're ready to buy. Amazon Light, built and maintained by software developer Alan Taylor, is one of those satellite sites.

The level of customer tracking at Amazon.com is another best-of-breed system. Using the data it collects on every registered user during every visit to the Web site, Amazon points users to products they might actually be glad to discover -- and buy. Amazon recommends products that are:

  • similar to what you're currently searching for (on-the-fly recommendations that use up tons of processing power)
  • related to what you've searched for or clicked on at any time in the past
  • purchased by other people who've searched for what you're searching for or have bought what you've bought

You can even customize the recommendations by giving Amazon more information about yourself and your interests and rating the products you've already purchased.

­ A recent development in customer tracking actually collects information on people who may have never visited Amazon.com. Amazon's gift-giving recommendations collect data on the stuff you buy for other people. For instance, if you buy a toy train set in December and ship it to your nephew, Amazon knows you give gifts to a boy aged four to 10 who lives in Ohio and likes trains. Might your nephew enjoy the latest addition to that train series? Might he also have an interest in RC cars? Amazon will give you all sorts of ideas about what to get your nephew when the next holiday season rolls around.

This type of information gathering has generated a fair amount of controversy. Some say Amazon gathers too much information for comfort, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center reports that in 2000, Amazon started sharing its customer data with its partners and subsidiaries. The concern has increased with the tracking of "gift-giving habits," because the gift-giving information Amazon collects could be about minors, which is against the law, and because the gift receivers don't even know that their name, age, gender, location and interests may be stored in Amazon's database of customer information.

Despite concerns about Big Brother Amazon, tons of people love the personalized experience Amazon offers. It's not just sales offers -- there's a community on Amazon.com that's based on people providing even more information about themselves to other Amazon users. People write their own reviews, recommendations, "So You'd Like To..." guides and "Listmania" lists based on Amazon's product offerings and share them with all of Amazon.com. One Listmania list, "The Top 25 Weirdest Items You Can Purchase Through Amazon!" by Sheila Chilcote-Collins of Van Wert, Ohio, includes a jar of S.E.P. (Stop Eating Poop) that should make your dog stop eating its own feces; bird feed in the form of live caterpillars shipped to your doorstep; and a book entitled "Owl Puke" that comes complete with a genuine pellet of regurgitated owl meal. You can make any sort of list you want, and any Amazon member can view it and rate it. (Click here to view the Top 100 Listmania lists.)

Beyond e-commerce and its trappings, some of the more recent Amazon endeavors have the company branching out into new realms. Amazon's Mechanical Turk project seeks to combine community, technology and compensation. Using the Mechanical Turk system, software and Web developers can post tasks they need help with, usually tasks related to things computers can't do but humans can, like quickly caption a set of photos. Anyone can post a task, and the person who completes it gets a small amount of money in return. Amazon gets a commission on each completed transaction. In a much more visible trek into the unknown, Amazon has funded the A9 search engine. It has full search capabilities, mapping functions, a toolbar with pop-up blocking and an easily accessible personal search history. A9 also provides a "Diary" where you can makes notes to yourself about specific Web pages and lists of recommended links for you to check out based on your previous searches. In keeping with Amazon's omnipresent marketing techniques, you can sign up to get an Amazon.com discount for using A9 on a regular basis, and when you type in a search term, you'll see a display of Amazon book results related to that term.

From a "Where's Amazon going?" point of view, perhaps the most notable project is the previously mentioned Amazon Services subsidiary. Amazon Services is building complete e-commerce solutions for companies that are potential Amazon competitors, leaving open the possibility that Amazon will ultimately head in the direction of technology service over retail sales.

For more information on Amazon.com and related topics, check out the links on the next page.