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AOL Buys Singingfish, Rolls Out More Search Changes

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AOL has acquired Singingfish, a multimedia search engine providing access to audio and visual files from across the web. Terms of the deal were not released. Coinciding with the purchase announcement, AOL unveiled additional features to the AOL Search service designed for its members.

The purchase comes in a year when we've seen the other major search players, Google, Yahoo and MSN, all make moves to own rather than lease search technology.

Is the Singingfish acquisition a sign that AOL has determined it needs to "own" search as well. No, the company says. In this case, AOL decided that owning a particular type of search technology made sense. But in other cases, AOL will continue to follow its strategy of partnering with others.

Strategy Still To Partner

"Our strategy has been to work with best of breed partners, and we still think the partnership strategy makes sense," said Jim Riesenbach, vice president and group general manager of AOL's search and directional media group. "Where AOL has unique assets, we think it makes sense to own some of the capabilities, as we've done with Singingfish."

One of those unique assets is a subscriber base. AOL seeks to increase its subscriber numbers by enticing them into broadband. To do so, it views Singingfish's multimedia indexing capabilities as a key element in delivering the promise of broadband -- hot content such as online video -- to its members.

"As we build up our broadband base, we see this is one of the areas where we can build more content," Riesenbach said.

Given this, it doesn't seem likely that AOL will try to follow the Yahoo and MSN moves of owning technology to build a web page database. Google is already providing that to AOL, and the company even recently renewed its agreement with Google for that service.

Indeed, AOL stressed that a strategy for other major players cannot be assumed correct for itself.

"What I see happening in the industry is that each player is making the right moves for their assets," said Gerry Campbell, executive director of search and navigation for AOL. "The expectation is that the player needs to own the crawler. That's not really our advantage. We deliver a very specific type of value to our users, and that's really where we're going. We're building a great big platform where we can integrate any type of content. Google's [web” search results are just one type."

This viewpoint helps explain why AOL has no problem partnering with Google, whereas Yahoo and MSN see Google as a threat (though Yahoo still remains using Google's results, for the time being).

Google has a piece of what AOL needs to solve its search puzzle, but AOL sees itself as the only one who can put together all the pieces, from Google and others properly.

"Core to this is assuring our members that at its root, this is a different product than Google," Riesenbach said. "What we want to do is ensure that our members see what we're providing is Google and a whole lot more."

By the way, the Singingfish purchase is the first search-oriented acquisition that AOL has made for several years. In 1995, AOL purchased WebCrawler, which was then a major search engine in terms of traffic and content. A year later, AOL sold WebCrawler to Excite. After that, the only search purchase I can recall was that of Personal Library Software, in 1998. AOL had previously acquired a minority stake of PLS in 1996.

Bring On The Tabs!

The addition of Singingfish's listings is highlighted through a new Audio/Video tab members see when they reach the internal version of AOL Search. This happens automatically when members use search or navigation boxes offered by the AOL software.

Here's a recap of what US AOL members will find when they access AOL Search, and what each tab does:

  • Web: By default, AOL Search performs this type of query. It brings back paid listings from Google (labeled Sponsored Links) as well as pages found across the web through Google's crawling efforts (labeled Matching Sites). Access to human reviewed lists of sites organized by editors of the AOL-owned Open Directory Project is also made available through links at the bottom of the page, in the "Narrow Your Search" area.

  • Images: Added in June, selecting this tab brings back pictures from across the web that match your query. Google Images is the service AOL has partnered with for this.

  • Audio/Video: This new tab lets you seek audio and video files from across the web that match your search. The listings come from the Singingfish search engine that AOL now owns.

  • News Search: This preexisting tab brings back matches from major news wire services that match your search.

  • In Your Area: This new tab puts access to AOL's own AOL Yellow Pages local listings prominently in front of users. It also delivers editorial content about entertainment, events, attractions and other material drawn out of the AOL City Guides (Digital City).

  • People Search: This preexisting tab lets AOL users to search within AOL chat rooms, message boards, member home pages and discussion groups.

AOL also offers an external version of its service, really designed for those members who for whatever reason aren't logged in and who may be at the AOL.com site, such as to check email. This version lacks some of the tabs above.

Multimedia Searching At AOL & Beyond

What type of multimedia content might you seek, using the new feature at AOL? Singingfish, a wonderful resource that I reviewed earlier this year, can locate movie trailers, radio and TV broadcasts, sporting events and more. For instance, a search for fall of berlin wall brings back clips of that famous event.

Singingfish can also be used to locate MP3 files. However, that's not its real strength, especially for those who may be seeking hot music for free. That's because this type of content often doesn't stay on web sites for long, due to fears site owners have that they may get caught distributing copyrighted material without permission. Consequently, Singingfish -- which only brings in content on web sites -- won't have it.

The new Audio/Video tab makes AOL Search unique among the major services in featuring multimedia search so prominently. Yahoo, Google, MSN and Ask Jeeves all lack a corresponding tab or option.

Yahoo does own multimedia technology that it acquired as part of its Overture purchase. That's because Overture itself had acquired AltaVista and AllTheWeb, both of which did and still do multimedia indexing.

I like how AltaVista's implementation, unlike AllTheWeb's or Singingfish's, shows you a screenshot of each video clip's opening frame. However, the textual descriptions that Singingfish provides about source, category, a clip title along with play quality options are also great.

AltaVista recently claimed to have 13 million files indexed, while Singingfish says it is at 9 million. But, don't look at the gap and assume it means AltaVista must be better. As with any search engine, size doesn't necessarily reflect quality. I haven't done a head-to-head for this article, but when I last looked briefly, I found the additional information Singingfish provided about a clip was a great help.

Now that Yahoo has inherited the AltaVista service, will it go a step further and sprout an Audio/Video search tab of its own?

"Currently, the AltaVista search and AllTheWeb.com sites already have audio video search, and it continues to do very well. We're looking at all opportunities that leverage the assets we have, including audio video search, but haven't announced any plans," said Yahoo spokesperson Diana Lee.

Unlike Yahoo, MSN doesn't own multimedia search technology. Instead, it leases for its Windows Media Player from...Singingfish!

Now that Singingfish is owned by a competitor, you might imagine that Microsoft is unhappy. However, AOL said that Microsoft wants to continue the partnership.

"They were actually quite pleased with this acquisition, because they realized this wasn't going to change things for them," said Riesenbach. Explaining further, he said that because Singingfish can be customized by each distribution partner, Microsoft could continue to offer results that are suited to those favoring content for its software. "Each customer does their own thing with the service and makes it unique," he said.

As for Google, it hasn't publicly revealed any multimedia search capabilities. However, I've no doubt that if Google decided it was important to add, for public relations reasons or because of user demand, the company could leverage its own crawling to quickly present a "beta" service as it has done with other services such as Search By Location and the Froogle shopping search engine.

Given that AOL and Google are partners, it's also possible that Google could lease multimedia search from AOL, in the way AOL already leases web and image searching from Google. Is there interest?

"We talk to Google multiple times per week, and they are very aware of the acquisition. We're going to continue to talk with them about a variety of things," Riesenbach said.

For the record, I sent messages out to MSN and Google to see if they had plans to make multimedia search more prominent at their services. These went out pretty late in the day yesterday during business hours, so it wasn't surprising that I didn't get responses by the time I filed this. If I receive some later, I'll update as appropriate.

Beyond The Tabs & Personalization

Featuring specialized search capabilities via tabs sounds good, but the reality is that most users don't see these or make much use of them, from my experiences in talking with ordinary searchers. AOL Search is no exception.

"We're seeing growth in the use of tabs, maybe 10 percent usage, and every time we've added a new one, we've seen incremental growth," Riesenbach said. "But, we also feel it is very important that we integrate the content that appears in these tabs into the search results themselves."

In particular, AOL aims to correct what I call "tab blindness" in a variety of ways. Local search provides one such example. Search for "dentist," and AOL comes back with a link to "Yellow Page Listings" at the top of its results. It's a prompt that's meant to drive you into more targeted results.

In addition, click on that link, and you're automatically shown local results that match the exact area where you live, no ZIP code entry required.

AOL can do this because, for members logged into its service, it knows exactly where they live based on their user profile. Similarly, search for "horoscopes," and you'll be shown your horoscope rather than needing to select your star sign, AOL says. That's possible because AOL knows your birthday from your profile.

Where else might such personalization go? AOL isn't certain, but it sees leveraging such data as the future to providing a unique, valuable service to its members. The use of ZIP codes and birthdates is only a start.

"We're very excited Google is moving down this path [personalization”, but we're not waiting," said Campbell.

Over the long term, gradually any type of personal information AOL has that can be useful to search will be used, Campbell explained. But he also stressed that privacy would not be compromised.

"We're not going to do anything that violates our members trust," he said. "We'll never do anything that's not about value to the member."

Another example of fixing tab blindness happens with news. A search for "bush visit," for example, suggests "Latest News Headlines" at the top of the page and lists a few stories. That's helpful to those who may have missed making use of the news tab.

AOL acknowledges that there's still much more that can be done to solve the issue with tabs being ignored. But the company also stressed that what's been done so far is only a "first step" and promises greater usability to come.

For Members Only

Should users of other search engines flock over to AOL Search. No -- and even AOL will tell you the same. AOL Search is built for AOL members.

"What we're trying to do is pull in the best of structured and unstructured data into a single [search” environment and make that a one stop to get what's the best on AOL and on the web," said Riesenbach. "That's a big focus of our differentiation. There's a lot of premium content available to our AOL members. Anytime AOL content is relevant to the query, were going to feature that to the user and the experience."

If you are an AOL member, there's every reason to make use of the service. It will indeed contain links to internal AOL content that you won't find in other search engines, including some multimedia content that the new Audio/Video tab will uncover just for members.

Invisible Tabs Metaphor

All this talk about new tabs at AOL -- not to mention the new ones added earlier this month to the Yahoo home page -- make me wish an article I'm preparing about my "invisible tabs" concept was ready to link to. That won't be done until next week, so let me give you a preview.

Tabs represent specialized search resources, and often times, people would be better off using such specialized search resources than trying to search the web. Want news content? Use a news search engine! Want multimedia? Use a multimedia search engine!

I wrote about this back in 2001, in an article called Being Search Boxed To Death. The point was that no search engine had come up with a good mechanism of getting users into the right specialized results. Tabs, drop down boxes, radio buttons and other options are either unseen by most searchers or considered too overwhelming to use.

Just months after AltaVista dropped tabs, Google resurrected them at the end of 2001. Today, all the major search engines have followed with their own, as if sprinkling a few tabs will add a Google-like flavor to themselves.

Ask Jeeves is the exception. There are no tabs on the Ask Jeeves home page. That's because the company is furthest along in implementing what I'm now calling "invisible tabs," tabs that a search engine pushes for you behind the scenes, as appropriate.

Type in pictures of dna into Ask Jeeves. It doesn't come back suggesting you click on a hyperlink to search for dna pictures on its image search service. Neither does it pray that you make use of the image search radio button on its results page. Instead, it intelligently understands you wanted pictures, so it automatically shows you some at the top of the page. Hurrah!

Try a search for pocket pc. As you can imagine, some people who do this may be interested in buying one. Intelligently, Ask Jeeves shows you some shopping search results in an attractive but not intrusive manner right at the top of the page.

You'll see Ask Jeeves get even more refined with its system. We're also going to eventually see all the search engines break away from the idea that it's always got to be 10 or 20 matching web pages that fill the results, with any other types of content being merely suggested. There are challenges with making this jump, but there are big gains to be had for users, as well.

Stay tuned -- more on this in an upcoming SearchDay, hopefully by next week!


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