AOL Moves Fully To Google

AOL Search changed to being fully "Google-powered" last week, completing a transition that was announced in May. Now both paid listings and crawler-based editorial results come from Google.

If AOL is now the same as Google, then how to choose between them? The answer is that AOL has some slight differences that may make it more appealing to AOL users. Let's break down the results page at AOL, then see where this may happen.

When you do a search, the top of the page will have a "Recommended Sites" area. This is where AOL may present either editorial picks as selected by its own editors, promote internal AOL content or list sponsored results.

Next comes the "Sponsored Sites" area. These are paid listings provided by Google, and they've been in place since last May, when Google won the AOL deal from Overture.

In particular, these listings are powered by Google's cost-per-click AdWords Select program. The first three ads that appear in the Google AdWords section (the first three boxes on the right-side of the Google results pages) are the ads that will appear at AOL.

Interestingly, AOL does not appear to be "geotargeting" ads. In other words, if you asked for your ads only to be shown to those in the United States, those coming to Google from outside the US would not see them. However, my testing has found that this is not the case, at least for the United Kingdom.

For instance, searches for "cars" and "mortgages" at Google show me (a UK viewer) ads from UK advertisers. However, the same searches at AOL brings back US advertisers. AOL says this might change as it investigates the situation more this summer.

Next is the "Matching Sites" area, where last week's big change has happened. Previously, this information was predominately powered by crawler-based results from Inktomi. Now Google's crawler-based results have taken over. For example, do a search for "crop circles," and all of the listings in "Matching Sites" will be from Google. Indeed, if you do the same search at both places, the results are almost identical.

Why aren't results at AOL and Google exactly the same? There are a variety of reasons. A major one is that "clustering" is not switched on at AOL Search. Clustering at Google prevents more than two web pages from the same site from appearing in the top results. For example, a search for "ibm" at Google has a listing from shown first, with a second page "indented" below this, then no other pages from the primary site displayed. If you want more from that particular site, you must use the "More results from" link shown after the second results.

In contrast, the same search at AOL brings up results almost entirely dominated by pages. AOL may add clustering in the future, once it figures out the best way to present the concept to its users.

Another issue is that AOL's own content may be inserted above Google results, when using the "internal" version of AOL. This is the version that is shown to those who perform a search using AOL's client software. The goal is to provide them both relevant information from within AOL and from across the web, all in one page.

For example, a search on "travel" brings up the internal AOL Travel area as the first match in the "Matching Sites" area. Similarly, a search on "email" brings up AOL's own internal content about children's email issues or changing AOL email preferences. "Harry Potter" lists some AOL internal areas dedicated to the character. You'll always know if AOL internal content is being presented because listings in Matching Sites will either lack a URL or have "AOL Keyword" shown below them.

It's not just the Matching Sites area that may change to show internal content. The "Recommended Sites" area becomes much more useful when using the internal version of AOL Search, or what the company itself calls the "house blend."

For example, a search on "screen names" brings up very relevant links for changing screen names or getting other help, when using the internal search. For a search on "billing," AOL content shows up in both Recommend Sites and Matching Sites. However, the Matching Sites links that appear for Bill Clinton or editorial cartoonist Bill Mitchell are almost certainly not what an AOL user is looking for. Recommended Sites, however, has great listings related to AOL billing help.

To me, this merger of AOL and web-wide content is the most compelling reason for those who use AOL to consider AOL Search over Google itself. However, it would be nice to see it get even better. For instance, "changing aol billing plan" brought pure Google results with no official listings from AOL, nor was "free time remaining" or "free time remaining on aol" helpful. Of course, AOL does have other mechanisms to help those inside the service get answers to these types of questions.

AOL's listings may also different from Google for reasons unknown. For example, going back to the "crop circles" search, AOL's own data and clustering are not issues, yet differences remain. They are slight. Usually most of the same pages will be listed in the top results at both places, but the order might be off.

AOL confirmed that it is pulling from the entire Google index, not just a portion as Yahoo does, and that the company isn't trying to alter Google's results in any particular fashion. So the differences -- aside from the addition of AOL content and clustering -- aren't intentionally happening. But AOL had no explanation for them.

"Our goal is to offer the very best results to our members, and we are using Google's biggest index. Although there may be very small side-by-side differences, our relevance is unquestionable. We have focused on relevance, not on the side-by-side compare," said Gerry Campbell, AOL's director of search and navigation.

If there are further explanations that emerge, I'll bring them to you in the future.

At the bottom of AOL search's results page is the "Narrow Your Search" are, which as before, lists categories from the Open Directory. Clicking on any of these brings back matching sites for that topic, listed alphabetically.

Google operates its own version of the Open Directory, where sites are listed by "PageRank" popularity order. AOL has not shifted over to using this version from Google, nor are there any explicit plans to do so in the near future. However, the company is pondering other ways to present directory information.

"We're still setting the directory strategies," Campbell. "We're constantly evaluating the right path to go forward."

A new "Find it in Your Area" section may also appear at the bottom of results pages, in some instances, for those using the internal version of AOL Search. The goal here is to provide geographically-specific listings to AOL users. AOL will usually know the zip code of its US users accessing the service, so it can pull appropriate listings from the AOL Yellow Pages. Try a search on "lawyers" to see this implemented. In the future, other data sources may be used.

In other changes, AOL says that it has decreased the size of its results pages, so that they will load much faster for users. It will also only display banner ads if someone has explicitly purchased one against a particular keyword. For instance, a search for "mortgages" brings back a banner, because an advertiser has purchased that keyword. However, a search on "pencils" doesn't bring back an ad, because no one is targeting that word.

"Thats a big step forward in terms of relevance, and we get into speed increases, as well," said Campbell.

The changes I've mentioned are for AOL Search in the US. However, AOL Search in other countries is also supposed to have shifted over to Google fully now, as well. Each local AOL service also has the ability to determine how they will pull and present Google data. This means a particular AOL Search service might decide to show results filtered to present a particular country or language.

"They'll all make their own calls based on local markets," Campbell said.

AOL also owns Netscape, and the deal with Google involved Netscape Search, as well. In May, Netscape moved to using Google results for the bulk of its "Matching Results" listings (AOL Time Warner and Netscape-specific content may be boosted about Google's listings, and as with AOL, there is no clustering). However, Netscape has continued to use Overture's paid listings for its "Sponsored Links" section. This is due to end later this month, when Google AdWords listings are to take over.

Finally, this article has focused on why AOL members might want to choose AOL Search over Google. How about the opposite -- why select Google over AOL? In my view, this would be primarily for the wide-range of features that Google itself provides. AOL does not present an option to see cached pages, there is no advanced search page, no access to Google Groups information and more. For these and other features, AOL members may still want to visit Google directly.

Such limitations at AOL Search aren't worrying to AOL. It partnered with Google so that it could focus on revamping its search service to be more effective for what most of its members need: good web search combined with easy access to AOL content.

"Our search is integrated into the client, which is where the vast majority of our members spend their time," said Campbell. "We think the product is actually good enough that they'll keep coming back."

AOL Search: Internal Version

AOL Search: External Version

Google AdWords Select

Overture & Inktomi Out, Google In At AOL
The Search Engine Report, May 1, 2002

Background on the deal between Google and AOL.

AdWords FAQ: Language and Geographic Targeting

Information about geotargeting Google ads.

AdWords FAQ: How do I choose whether to show my ads on Google partner sites?

By default, your ads at Google will also be shown at AOL and other Google partners. If you prefer for this not to happen, you'll have to change your settings, as described here.