AOL Tweaks Search for Users, Advertisers

AOL Search enhancements unveiled today mark a continuation of America Online’s plan to create a destination site for a broader Web audience and to construct an attractive place for advertisers.

Two changes in particular are important for advertisers: a deal with Ingenio to begin offering pay-per-call ads in search results and a program to give trademark owners a chance to protect their brands.

The revamped search appears on AOL’s service for subscribers today and will roll out on its Web search site on Monday. Enhancements center around a new user interface intended to fulfill AOL’s goal of providing “better answers faster” and on business initiatives to explore value-added advertising opportunities for partners, said Gerry Campbell, VP and general manager of AOL search and navigation.

“We’re looking for ways to not only provide partner and consumer value but new revenue streams [as well],” he said. “We’re stepping into a couple of new ways to monetize our search and allow advertisers to touch our members in relevant ways.”

Ingenio’s Pay-Per-Call Listings

AOL currently offers organic search results and paid listings from Google, as well as some paid listings from its own advertisers. Ingenio’s pay-per-call listings will not replace those ads. Instead, they’ll be an additional element on the results page. The platform offers advertisers a performance-based system to drive targeted phone calls, rather than clicks, to their businesses. An advertiser is charged only after a phone call is made to her business as a result of the ad.

“It opens up a market for businesses that are not Web-oriented in the way they transact business. Either they have the kind of business that can’t do a lot with a click, or they don’t have a site at all,” said Marc Barach, Ingenio’s CMO.

Advertisers can sign up for Ingenio’s existing network on its site. Once AOL implements the program, advertisers will be able to sign up via AOL’s site as well. Advertisers will have the option to show ads only on the specific site where they sign up or on all sites across Ingenio’s network.

While the service is still relatively new, it stands to be a significant differentiator in the long term, once it builds up an advertiser base, said Charlene Li, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “At this point, it’s not that significant,” she said. “But I think it’s essential to growing the local advertising market. There are simply many more companies that conduct business offline than online, and a phone-based PPC advertising model helps close the loop.”

Pay-per-call ads have been available since September on FindWhat.com’s network, which provides paid search results to MetaCrawler, Excite, NBCi, and Search.com.

Extending Brand Through “Trademark Layer”

The new “trademark layer” program allows AOL advertising partners who own trademarks to pay a flat fee to show a large, prominent ad above those of other advertisers who may have bid on their trademarked keyword. Brands such as Target, Blue Nile, Wal-Mart, and Amazon.com have been piloting the program since last year.

“This is a way to help advertisers extend their brands, which they’ve worked so hard to build, into search,” Campbell said. “It’s also a reflection of the current legal issues affecting trademarked keyword targeting and gives trademark owners an opportunity to address that issue.”

AOL began shifting toward attracting a broader Web audience last year, launching a shopping search site and a travel search destination in partnership with Kayak.com. A full launch of the new AOL.com portal site is expected this year.

Many of the changes announced today take advantage of the media properties within AOL’s network. New “Snapshots” results, displayed next to relevant searches, offer links drawn from AOL’s network of content and Web brands, including AOL CityGuide, AOL Yellow Pages, MapQuest.com, and Moviefone. For example, a shopping-related query will now include results from AOL’s Pinpoint Shopping.

“Our long-term plan is to bring our assets as a media company to bear on building a fantastic experience, which gives us the opportunity to build a great business as well,” Campbell said.

The company also announced licensing deals with Vivísimo for its clustering technology and Copernic for its desktop search product, both of which will be integrated into AOL Search.

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