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A small search engine owned by Inc. is testing a mapping service that will display street-level photos of the city blocks surrounding a requested address.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hoping to become a more popular Internet destination, a small search engine owned by Web retailer Inc. is testing a mapping service that will display street-level photos of the city blocks surrounding a requested address.

The service, which became available Monday, joins the increasingly crowded field of online mapping. Other major players include America Online's, Yahoo Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s (MSNBC content is distributed by MSN.  MSNBC itself is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

A9 is counting on an index of 35 million photographs spanning the neighborhoods of 22 U.S. cities to distinguish its mapping service from the rest of the pack.

The Palo Alto-based search engine first began to post street-level photographs of specific addresses earlier this year as part of its Yellow Pages listings.

The new service extends that feature by posting photographs of entire city blocks alongside a traditional map showing a grid of streets.

A9 believes the street-level photos will provide a more helpful view than a recent Google mapping upgrade that provides a satellite eye's view of neighborhoods.

"We're making maps slightly less abstract and closer to the real world," said Udi Manber, A9's chief executive.

When a user asks for driving directions on A9, the service also will provide photos of all the businesses along the recommended route, provided the images are stored in the search engine's index.

The index already has added about 15 million more pictures since the January debut of the Yellow Pages service. Amazon has been building the index by dispatching trucks equipped with digital cameras and global positioning system, or GPS, receivers.

Even though it's backed by an Internet heavyweight, the nearly 2-year-old A9 remains a relative lightweight in the lucrative search engine industry. In June, A9 processed just 4.9 million search requests, ranking it 27th among Internet search engines with a U.S. market share of 0.1 percent, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

A9's maps will display photos from 22 cities: Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Boston; Chicago; Dallas/Fort Worth; Denver, Detroit; Fargo, N.D.; Houston; Los Angeles, Miami; New York; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Portland, Ore.; Sacramento, Calif.; Salt Lake City; San Diego; San Francisco; San Jose, Calif.; Seattle; and Washington D.C.