AOL Search: Now Playing in the Big Leagues

Coauthor: Gary Price

Last month AOL rolled out several enhancements to its core search functionality that position it as a clear contender in the battle for eyeballs between Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, and MSN Search.

As part of its ongoing move toward becoming a Web portal rather than a “gated neighborhood,” the new features are included both in AOL Web Search and the proprietary client software used by AOL members. The enhancements were rolled out to members first. AOL Web Search followed a week later.

Using size measures, AOL is already a top-tier player, processing more than 700 million unique searches per month from over 35 million unique users. Most of those searches come from members using the AOL client, but the new features significantly enhance the appeal of AOL Search for all Web users.

“We’re mid-transition in a major strategic shift,” said Gerry Campbell, VP and general manager of AOL search and navigation. “We’re a player in search, and we’re now putting our feet into motion into being generally available.”

Here’s a look at what’s new at AOL Search.

Better Answers, Faster

AOL Search’s mission is “better answers, faster” and virtually all the new enhancements to the service support that goal.

For starters, the AOL Search home page has a new look. Most of the color is gone from the page and the user interface is now tabless. A portion of the page contains a constantly updated ticker of “Hot Searches.”

AOL introduced personalization features via another box that appears on both the home page and SERPs (define). It displays your recent queries, storing up to 50 in a rolling list. Query strings are saved via a cookie if you access AOL Search via the Web; AOL subscribers can choose to have their recent searches saved on an AOL server, which allows access to them on any computer.

Users have complete control over their history and can selectively delete queries or remove the entire search history.

SERPs also offer new features. Perhaps most noticeable is dynamic clustering using technology licensed from Vivísimo. Clusters are labeled “Web Matches” and appear on the upper left of search result pages.

Further, AOL rolled out “Smartbox” technology. Smartbox offers dynamic query refinements by monitoring search terms as you type and offering suggestions before you actually click the search button. The technology has been used on AOL’s Pinpoint Shopping since October. It can be a bit disconcerting at first, but over time it’s a very useful tool for narrowing and focusing queries. Notably, it doesn’t interfere with your search if you opt not to use it.

For the past few months, AOL has been rolling out “AOL Snapshots” at the top of search results for many types of queries. AOL Snapshots are editorially programmed packages that present relevant content apart from Web search results, similar to Ask Jeeves’ smart search results.

“We’re turning search from a query-driven list of results into a programming-driven environment,” said Campbell. “There are certain cases where content can actually be the answer. As a user I would prefer not to dig through results.” Snapshots are a first step toward accomplishing that end, according to Campbell.

AOL has a staff of about 60 devoted to building and organizing Snapshots. The company claims to have about 2.5 million Snapshots currently programmed that cover about 20 percent of all AOL Search queries. Snapshots content comes from other Time Warner properties, content partners such as WebMD, and other sources.

Snapshots have been expanded to include editorial and member ratings for local businesses, restaurants, and other nearby places of interest if you provide a Zip Code. This also enables a new “My Locations” functionality that lets you add your own ratings.

You can find a list of some Snapshots and more information about them in the AOL Search Toolbox.

More Changes to AOL Search

Several new AOL services, tools, and partnerships were recently introduced. These include a new, expanded local search featuring business listings from AOL yellow pages and AOL CityGuide, movie information from Moviefone, maps from Mapquest, and content from other partners.

Interestingly, AOL also struck a deal with FAST Search & Transfer to crawl the Web for local information, rather than license crawled local search data from Web search partner Google. When asked why AOL went with FAST over Google, Campbell sidestepped the issue and said AOL and Google work together in many areas and choose not to work together in others. When pressed, he acknowledged AOL simply liked FAST’s local search better than Google’s.

FAST was the original developer of the AlltheWeb search engine, purchased by Overture and later absorbed into the Yahoo empire. As part of the deal, FAST retained its core Web-crawling technology, now in place at the U.S. government’s FirstGov portal, Italian internet portal Virgilio, and elsewhere.

AOL also plans to roll out an integrated desktop search tool with technology licensed from Copernic. At first this will be integrated into Internet Explorer’s explorer bar, but it will eventually become a standalone implementation, according to Campbell. The company plans to extend Copernic Desktop search’s current features to handle things such as email and other AOL content.

Advertisers will have the opportunity to participate in a new pay-per-call program through a new partnership with Ingenio. These listings will complement existing Google-sponsored links on AOL Search result pages, as well as on other AOL properties.

Meet Chris at Search Engine Strategies in New York City, February 28-March 3.

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