When we first started covering the Internet beat, we had no idea we’d be writing so much about search engines. But here we are, with the second big search story of the week (after Google Video). This one’s from Amazon.com. From our Mercury News story that went online a bit ago:

Amazon.com is jumping into the online Yellow Pages business with a splash today, touting a photo service that allows shoppers to stroll through cities without ever having to leave their personal computers.

The service, called Block View, is the brainchild of Amazon’s search engine subsidiary, A9.com, based in Palo Alto. Company employees have driven more than 20,000 miles in camera-equipped sport-utility vehicles in recent months, videotaping tens of thousands of storefronts and converting the images into 20 million photographs.

To date, the company has collected images for 10 major metropolitan areas, including San Jose and other Bay Area cities. But A9 officials said they hope to have coverage for the entire United States.

Amazon displays a series of stitched-together photos for each business so that you can take a virtual tour of the street-scape surrounding each storefront. (See a screenshot here.)

The wow factor on this one is pretty big. Not just because it’s pretty cool to be able to ”stroll” up and down the street with your computer. But because it seems inconceivable that — in an age when so much Web content is either user-generated or automatically scooped up by search engine bots — an Internet company would spend the time and money driving around the country amassing such a massive collection of images. Amazon/A9 explains how they did it here. And short videos about it are here (.wmv) and here (Quicktime).

In addition to the photos that Amazon/A9 produces for each business listing, merchants can upload their own photos and text about their stores, effectively creating a mini Web site for free.

Greg Sterling of the Kelsey Group suggested to us that Amazon’s long-range plans may involve letting businesses create e-commerce Web sites on Amazon’s site. That would put Amazon in competition with companies such as Yahoo that offer Web site services to small and medium-sized businesses.

“This could become a substitute Web site for local businesses that might want to use them,” he said. “That has to be contemplated in that.”

Sterling said the new service could help “differentiate A9” from Amazon.

But Search Engine Watch’s Danny Sullivan said the A9 announcement calls to mind a fundamental question that’s never been satisfactorily answered: What is the point of A9? Is it an Amazon’s sandbox to test new search technologies? Is it intended to drive traffic to Amazon, or vice versa? Is it intended to compete with the Googles of the world as a stand-alone search engine — as CEO Udi Manber suggested when Amazon took the wraps off A9 last year?

If that’s the goal, it has some ways to go. The site had 816,000 unique visitors in December of 2004, according to comScore Media Metrix. Nothing to sneeze at for a new search engine. But not nearly in the class of a Google (71,660,000 unique visitors) or Yahoo (64,845,000) or even a LookSmart (3,430,000).

“Are you in the search war or not?” Sullivan asks of A9. “Are you fighting with these people? Then I want them to stand up and say they are. You want them to decide which side they’re on.”