AOL Search Big Improvement For Members

The old AOL NetFind service never really offered any particular advantages to AOL members, who were its main users. In contrast, the new AOL Search service should be a top choice for AOL's millions of members. That's because for the first time, you can search for information within AOL and across the web at the same time.

AOL Search was officially launched early last month, in conjunction with the release of the AOL 5.0 software. That software makes search and navigation a central part of its interface.

In particular, a new navigation box has been added. It appears near the top of the AOL screen, just below the icons, with text inside that says "Type Search words, Keywords or Web Addresses here." To the right of this box are three buttons, "Go," "Search" and "Keyword."

You can use this box to navigate within AOL using its keyword system. For instance, enter "shopping," select the Go button, and you'll be taken to the AOL Shopping channel. Enter "movies," select Go, and you're taken to the AOL movie area.

What happens if you enter a word that's not an AOL keyword? Then AOL sends your words to the AOL Search service. So if you looked for "whale watching," you'd be taken straight to AOL Search, as there is no matching AOL keyword for those terms. We'll discuss what you might find there in a moment.

Sometimes you'll enter a phrase that's somewhat related to an existing AOL keyword. For instance, enter "new york hotels." and AOL will suggest its "new york homes" area. If that doesn't suit your needs, choose the Find option. That will take you to AOL Search -- though annoyingly, you'll need to reenter your query.

In contrast to the Go button, pushing the Search button tells AOL to use AOL Search instead of first checking to see if there are any matching AOL keywords. You can use this button anytime you actually want to search for something, whether it is within the AOL service or out on the web.

Don't be afraid to use it -- you'll get both the best of AOL and the web combined into one results list. For instance, let's go back to "movies." If you enter that word and hit the Search button, you'll see a link called "Movies" at the top of the results, in the "Recommended Sites" section. Clicking on that takes you right into the AOL movies area.

It's not just AOL content that's featured in Recommended Sites. Do a search for "mp3," and you'll see a link to the WinAmp site, which provides a player for listening to the audio format. All Recommended Sites are picked by editors at AOL and may be on the web or within the AOL service.

After Recommended Sites, you'll also see a section called Matching Categories. These list sites from across the web, which have been organized into topics by the volunteer editors of the Open Directory.

AOL Search doesn't just look at the words within a category's title to decide if it should be listed in the Matching Categories section. It also scans the descriptions of the sites listed within a category, as well as the words on the home pages of those sites. In this way, it can pop up a listing for "Earth - Final Conflict" when you search for "Gene Roddenberry," even though Roddenberry's name doesn't appear in the category title.

AOL doesn't want to overwhelm its users with matching categories, so only the top five are displayed. If you wish to see more, select the little "next" link in the Matching Categories section.

Next, AOL Search displays actual web sites or relevant sections of the AOL service in the "Matching Sites" section. If it's out on the web, you'll know because you'll see a web address beginning with http:// below the site description. Otherwise, the site is internal to AOL.

Most of the web sites listed come out of the Open Directory, but AOL also goes beyond this. It tries to ensure that any "popular" web sites might also appear, even if these sites aren't actually listed in the Open Directory.

AOL does this by looking at its caching data. AOL keeps copies of pages viewed by its members in a cache, so that they can be retrieved more quickly. This also gives the service the ability to check the cache and see which pages are most requested. In this way, it can determine a page's popularity as based on AOL member visits.

So, if a site is popular but not listed in the Open Directory, AOL Search creates an entry for it. AOL Search also uses this popularity data to influence how it ranks sites in the Matching Sites section. Basically, if many AOL members visit a web site, then that web site is more likely to be ranked higher in response to searches.

At the bottom of the page, you can choose to see more web sites by selecting the "next" link. Or, you can choose to view "AOL Articles" or "Web Articles." AOL Articles are any type of content that might be related to your search terms from across the whole of AOL. Similarly, Web Articles are any individual web pages that are found related to your search from across the entire web. In some cases, if you search for something obscure, you'll automatically be shown only Web Article results -- not Matching Categories or Matching Sites.

AOL Search also has some features designed to help you search better. After all the search results, you'll see a sentence that says "People who searched for movies also searched for," followed by some links. These are popular searches that are related to your core search term. So if you looked for "movies," you'd discover that "horror movies" is a popular related search. Then if you clicked on the "horror movies" link, your search would automatically be done again, using those words.

Non-AOL members can also use AOL Search, as can AOL members who aren't signed into the service, for some reason. The only difference with this "external" AOL Search is that it does not list any content that's within the AOL online service.

How about getting listed within AOL Search? Since the main results are powered by the Open Directory, you need to be listed over there -- see the article below, for more tips.

Inktomi powers the "Web Articles" section, so if you are listed with the service, you have a chance of appearing here. The best way of ensuring that currently is to submit to HotBot, which uses Inktomi for its crawler-based results.

You might also consider spending some time on AOL itself. Become a member, find forums and areas related to your web site, and let that community know what you have to offer. That doesn't mean to spam AOL members! Instead, actively participate in the community and mention your site when and where appropriate. You may tap into an entire new audience, plus increased visits from AOL members might boost your placement within AOL Search.

AOL Search (Internal)
Get to it using the search button described above or via the red "Search" button in the upper left-hand corner of the Welcome Screen.

AOL Search (External Version)

How The Open Directory Works

Learn more about submitting to the Open Directory.

How HotBot Works

Tips on submitting to HotBot, which gets you listed with Inktomi.