News: AOL Puts A Stake In The Ground

As I worked on my book over the past year or so, AOL was quite significant for its absence. It didn't seem to have a strategy to speak of when it came to search, its focus on its own walled garden of access customers kept it from influencing the…

Aol SearchAs I worked on my book over the past year or so, AOL was quite significant for its absence. It didn’t seem to have a strategy to speak of when it came to search, its focus on its own walled garden of access customers kept it from influencing the broader conversation of web-based search.

That all seems to be changing now, as AOL last Fall announced it was opening up its service and was taking a more web-centric approach to its business. First major step seems to be in search: it too is throwing its hat into the ring, and the approach it’s taking should be familiar to anyone who has a Yahoo login – yup, it looks like Yahoo, with an AOL twist.

(NB: The new search is not available as I write this, I will update when is goes live. Full release is in extended entry.)

First, AOL has used Google as its core index for sometime, and this is not changing. What is changing, and what I find most interesting, is that AOL is throwing open its “Search Experience” to the general web user. AOL has developed any number of interesting tools layered on top of Google – think A9, and Yahoo till they dropped Google for their own index last year. But until now, AOL has focused on its access base – i.e. its access clients, who use PC-based client software to access the AOL service. AOL wasn’t really a search destination for anyone who wasn’t already an AOL member.

No longer. Last Fall AOL announced a business strategy shift which predicated today’s annoucement. It gave up the walled garden model, and – not surprisingly for those who feel search is critical to all things internet – their first big move toward paying off that announcement is in search.

As one might expect, AOL has joined Yahoo in taking what might be called the “media model” of search. The media model takes a person’s query and salts the results with all manners of human edited results – mostly from content the service owns, or content that the service access from partners, or content from the web that the service edits together to create what has been called “smart search”, “search shortcuts,” “programmatic search,” and the like. (To be fair, Yahoo, of all the players, is actually pursuing both a Head and a Tail approach – with their algorithmic index and in particular their approach to RSS and video search, for example, they are very much playing in the tail as well).

But AOL is taking “programmed search” to the extreme. It is, after all, a major division of a gigantic content player, and up until now, that content was locked away behind the failing access business model. No longer. AOL Search is taking the media model of search to the maximum – they have 60 full time employees creating edited “snapshots” which respond to what AOL Search chief Gerry Campbell says are 20% of all queries. That’s 2.5 million snapshots preloaded, so when you type in a popular query, you get an “answer, not just a list of results.” I imagine that number will only continue to grow. Yahoo circa 1995, anyone? This time, however, AOL only has to pre-load queries which prove out to be worth the time – the log files will tell them which ones. As will the economy. “We won’t have a smart box for a query like ‘birds of the Maldives'” Campbell told me. ” But that’s why we have Google.”

Yow! It’s not like Google is against “smart search boxes” – they do add Froogle, News, and Mapquest links when they deem it appropriate. But AOL (and Yahoo) have taken an far more aggressive approach. AOL “without a doubt” wants to to be a major web destination, Campbell says. Which will win? Eh, both.

AOL and Yahoo are playing to the head – where the money is, where the commercial value is – honestly, where most of the most popular content is. Google is playing, as a service, more to the tail. And the stuff they are adding to their new web search, combined with the stuff they plan to add, will, i think, push AOL into being a full throated contestant in the ongoing search scrum. Yippee!!!

Campbell said something interesting as we chewed through this: that AOL is creating a “query driven navigation interface,” as opposed to just another search engine.

To the particulars (and I’d love to have screen shots, but I never got the deck mailed to me that I saw online when AOL briefed me earlier today. When/if I get em, you’ll see em.)

AOL is adding a lot to its search play. First they have a new and much improved interface. Probably most impressive, at least in concept (I have not played with it) is the “SmartBox” feature which is sort of like Yahoo’s “Also Try” or Google’s search suggestion tool, but in real time as you type a query. Cool idea.

They’re adding clustering, via a deal with Vivisimo. They’re adding pay-per-call, via a deal with Ingenio (I’d love to write more about this, but I’m beat, it’s late, maybe later in the week!). They’re adding those smart boxes I was talking about. They’re adding search history – but only your last 50 searches. I think that’s lame, but Campbell told me the average AOL user searches just 20 times a month – same as your typical web surfer. They plan to watch that and possibly add more. And they’re planning on adding robust local search that integrates some of their properties – MapQuest, Moviefone, Yellow Pages, City Guides, etc.

And, of course, they will be adding desktop search, through a deal with Copernic, which is, I hear, a great desktop search tool.

Soon, Campbell told me, they plan to add localized indexing, so you can search just the part of the web that is in your region. That will be through a partnership with FAST.

And, oh yeah, they will be integrating vertical search, travel, shopping, etc. Oh, and they have added the ability for “AOL partner advertisers” to buy their own trademarks as ad terms, boxing out others. Hmmm, that smells a bit opportunistic given all the legal stuff swirling around trademarks, but hey, gotta make a buck.

Man, they’ve been busy. I can’t wait to play with it. I’ll update this post once I do.

Update: points out that AOL’s use of FAST for local is a blow to Google. Also, my friends at Ask remind me that they had clustering, smart search, and suggest tools for years. ]]>< ![CDATA[


Dulles, VA January 20, 2005 – America Online, Inc., the world’s leading interactive services company, announced today new AOL® Search innovations and partnerships to expand its offerings for AOL® subscribers, current and future audiences of AOL’s network of Web properties, including the new® portal, and advertisers.

Available today is a new version of AOL Search, as America Online expands its search services with new technology partners in addition to Google™ core results. On AOL Search, users can find news, local information, images, audio and video files, and products all in one place, and it combines results from Google with relevant AOL® content and tools to quickly narrow searches, helping users find better answers faster than ever before. 

New enhancements of AOL Search include:

  ** An updated design that moves away from a tabbed interface to provide users with a more directed and personalized search experience.

  ** A new sorting and “clustering” feature that helps users find exactly what they are looking for more quickly and efficiently. AOL has licensed clustering technology from Vivisimo, which automatically organizes relevant search results by topics and displays them alongside the list of general Web search results. This approach saves users from having to wade through long lists so they can zero in on more specific results and find exactly what they’re searching for. AOL Search is the first major search engine to incorporate clustering technology within its search results.

  ** An innovative AOL® SmartBox™ suggestion tool that automatically presents relevant choices to help instantly narrow a query even before users press the “Search” button. The SmartBox tool helps users refine and clarify their search, increasing the accuracy of their results. For example, typing in the word “eagles” into the AOL Search query box presents the opportunity for users to hone their search to “The Eagles” (the band), “The Philadelphia Eagles” (football team), or “Eagles” (the bird). AOL Search will also display a user’s most recent searches to save time when they want to look up the same searches again.

  ** A new layer of results called “Snapshots” appears at the top of search results and presents editorial content and relevant information for a wide range of topics from local movie showtimes and sports stats to current events. Snapshots results, which draw from AOL’s large network of content and Web brands, include integrated maps and member ratings for local businesses, restaurants and other points of interest. Also available are quick tools such as a calculator, currency converter, “find a flight” from AOL® Travel, and “find a restaurant” from AOL® CityGuide. There are now more than 2.5 million AOL® Snapshots programmed packages provided for as many as 20% of all AOL Search queries. AOL Search integrates locally relevant search results for cities across the U.S. and draws from AOL’s leading local services including AOL CityGuide, AOL® Yellow Pages, and the MapQuest® and Moviefone® services.

  ** Integrated shopping search results provide users with an easy and convenient way to purchase products they’re looking for or to easily access Pinpoint® Shopping’s database of more than 25 million products where users can also narrow products by category, brand, price, store name and merchant rating.

  ** As part of America Online’s ongoing commitment to ensure usability of AOL products and services by people with disabilities, the new AOL Search offers the ability to adjust font sizes and improved compatibility with screen reader software used by the blind.

Coming soon, AOL Search will further expand its Local Search capabilities with a greater diversity of features, based on a new algorithm, giving users an even more comprehensive and convenient way to find information where they live, work and travel. America Online is working with Fast Search & Transfer, Inc. (FAST™), a leading provider of search technology and solutions, on its new content aggregation, indexing, and algorithmic approach to enhance its expanded local search services and results customized to users’ geographic locations.

Also announced today, America Online has signed a license agreement with Copernic for desktop search technology. Under the agreement, AOL is working with Copernic to deliver integrated desktop search with AOL Search that will allow users to conveniently search from one place for information online or files on their computer hard-drive.

America Online is also working to provide expanded opportunities for businesses and advertisers. In addition to its successful relationship with Google to provide Web search results and sponsored links for AOL Search, America Online announced today that it will work with Ingenio, a company that offers a new way for local merchants to tap the power of Internet advertising through its Pay Per Call™ Advertising Platform. Ingenio Pay Per Call offers advertisers — whether or not they operate a website — an Internet-based, pay-for-performance system to drive targeted phone calls, rather than clicks, to their business for fast and efficient customer acquisition.

Coming soon, these advertisers – including businesses large and small, as well as local merchants and service providers – will be showcased in a sponsored link search results area on AOL Search, the Web site, AOL Yellow Pages and other AOL properties, providing advertisers exposure to a mass audience of ready-to-buy customers searching online for local products and services. Ingenio Pay Per Call advertisers will be charged only after a phone call is made to their business as a result of the ad. An auction-based, open bidding approach gives advertisers unique insight into their local market, allowing them to determine how much a phone lead is worth to their business at any given time.

About America Online, Inc.

America Online, Inc. is a wholly owned subsidiary of Time Warner Inc (NYSE: TWX). Based in Dulles, Virginia, America Online is the world’s leader in interactive services, Web brands, Internet technologies and e-commerce services.

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8 thoughts on “News: AOL Puts A Stake In The Ground”

  1. A classic “build – buy – borrow,” strategy, well executed. The portfolio of partners has been well selected, best of breed in each vertical sector (both in terms of business & technology application.)

    This is a clear statement to those intending to disintermediate AOL’s business models. Combined with the “content assets”, a significant step in raising the swtiching costs for their customers, which is always the envy of every business.

  2. Interesting to see – and of course they can use their recent acquisition to sell ads and maybe innovate into behaviour advertising, local search etc. using the user data and content they have.

  3. Pay per call (PPC2) embedded in the sponsored results on the AOL Website as well as AOL Search, AOL Yellowpages and other AOL properties. This remarkable tech is coming and AOL looks to tap the potential.
    Ingenio and their backers (Vulcan Vent.) know what they have.

  4. AOL can’t compete for the (many) users who want “a simple and clear interace” because Google owns them. They have to do something different, which necessarily means either technically smarter (an approach which, given their capabilities versus Google’s they have understandably shied away from) or more complex and cluttered.

    I think AOL is still just milking a shrinking asset, but this may help them to milk it more effectively.

  5. They said I could do this… if you want to see the “live” new version of AOL Search, it’s at Some things won’t work for you using it outside the AOL client, like recent searches, and some of the links won’t resolve for you, but you should be able to see it in all its glory. When it launches on next week, recent searches will work for you.

  6. I’m excited and dissappointed at the same time. When I saw the headline I was hoping for a “big splash” ala MSN Search. Perhaps that will come in time.

    At least this does increase SE exposure of ODP and Google listed sites…

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