Jason Calacanis has written a forthright piece on the importance of fixing AOL search. He's examined Google, Yahoo, MSN and AOL Search, and in particular looked at the position of the first organic result, down to the number of pixels from the top and the left, together with useful screen shots. Danny wrote on the same subject of the positioning of results a couple of years ago. There's absolutely no doubt that the positioning of organic results is very important, but as a searcher there are other things that I worry about rather more.
I ran the same search as Jason across all four search engines, and I think he's being slightly harsh on AOL Search, basing his criticism on one search. However, I fully agree with him that it's not good news for AOL Search that the first search result is below the fold (meaning you have to scroll down to see it); as a searcher I want information presented to me as quickly and effectively as possible - I don't want to hunt around on a page looking for my results.
However, as a searcher I do have other concerns, namely that I want good results that answer my question as quickly as possible and secondly, that I get information about the sites that are being returned to enable me to better decide which one I visit. Obviously I'm hopeful that the first organic result is on topic and trustworthy, especially if I've run a tight search. That isn't always going to be the case however, so I may need some guidance.
Looking at the AOL results I get a title, a line of description (two if I'm lucky) and a URL. Although Google gives me the same information, I also often get update details, a cached version and the chance to search for similar pages. At Yahoo I get the title, a short description of the content showing my search term in context, the opportunity to look at the category the result is in, a cached version and the ability to search for more from that site. I also get the chance to run other searches with their 'also try' option at the top of the page. Over at MSN Search I just get title, brief description and sometimes the chance to see a cached version.
Expanding out my search from those four to Ask for example I find the same problem that Jason found with AOL - my first search results are below adverts and sponsored results and just below the fold. While I still don't get much by way of description I can do a quick peek to see what the page looks like and I immediately get opportunities to narrow or broaden my search. Over at Exalead I also get a thumbnail shot of the page and various useful ways of refining my search.
As a searcher, that's really what interests me the most. Yes, of course, position of search results on the page is very important, but as important, or even moreso in my opinion, is greater information about the results, the ability to quickly refine a search, and of course accurate and on topic results. Jason finishes his piece by saying that AOL needs to love their users more; I heartily agree (and thank him for saying so) but I think the same can be said of most search engine companies. If you want to love me, give me good results, sound information on which to base the decision on which result to visit, and the ability to help me focus my search more effectively.
Postscript From Danny: See also Revisiting Search Engine Ad Breaks for a recent look at a related issue, the percentage of ads to editorial. AOL doesn't do well under that measure, either.