New Features at AOL Search

AOL continues to improve its web search capabilities, today adding a number of new features designed to appeal to casual searchers and power users alike.

Spotted in preview last week by our hawk-eyed news editor Gary Price, the new tools are live today at search.aol.com. AOL says the new features are the result of extensive consumer research and testing.

AOL Search is powered by Google, but offers many features not found on Google, and other features implemented in different ways. If you're a Google fan, it's worth checking out how AOL differs even though it uses essentially the same underlying index of web pages.

Here's a rundown of the new features:

Saved Searches. Mousing over any search result causes a scissors icon to appear to the left of the result. Click the icon, and the result gets "clipped" and both the result and your search terms are stored as a saved search.All of your saved searches can be viewed by clicking the green "saved searches" icon that now appears next to a search box.

Clipping a result also moves the result to the top of a result list for the query, where it will appear any time you run the saved search. You can clip both web results and sponsored links. Saved searches persist for 30 days, and you can sort them either by date or the query words you entered.

Deleting saved searches is easy. A trash icon next to each saved search lets you delete that specific saved search. You can also turn off the saved search function altogether and erase everything.

AOL's approach to saved searches differs from other services in that you don't need to sign in to use it. While that makes it quick and easy to use, the downside of this approach is that it's really not "personalized" search because anyone using a computer can save searches. You also cannot retrieve your saved searches from another computer.

Expanded Snapshots Answers. Snapshots are results programmed by a team of AOL editors which appear at the top of search results for popular queries. Snapshots are similar to Ask's Smart Search results, providing information, images and related links in a condensed, summary-like approach. AOL has expanded the number of Snapshot Answers to cover approximately four million search terms, and has introduced new Spanish-language Snapshots for a number of topics.

Quick Answers. AOL joins Ask, Google and MSN on the natural-language bandwagon with this feature. Designed as a complement to Snapshot Answers, Quick Answers provide short answers to natural language questions entered in the search box.

AOL's approach draws answers from authoritative sources across the web including the CIA Fact Book, Merriam-Webster, Worldbook Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, the U.S. Census web site and others. For example, enter the query "what's the capital of Portugal?" and a Quick Answer appears at the top of the page above web results, with the answer "Lisbon."

This is obviously a new feature, however, as most of my test questions produced no Quick Answer results (what is the value of pi? who is the president of russia? how far is the earth from the sun? Lots of relevant web search results, but no Quick Answers for these seemingly straightforward questions). In fairness to AOL, none of the natural language question-answering features work consistently on any other search engine, either. But I expect the number of Quick Answers will continue to expand over time, making this a much more useful service.

In addition to these features, AOL Search now blends relevant results from web sites, videos, audio clips, pictures, and products on search result pages. The company says that local and news results will be coming soon.

AOL Search has also added some refinement tools. Categories to the left of search results have been streamlined, making it easy to drill down into specific topics. And the Smartbox Suggestions feature used in AOL's Pinpoint Travel and Pinpoint Shopping services has made its way into AOL Search, suggesting search terms while you types.

All of these changes are incremental, but add to the overall usefulness of AOL Search. If you haven't given the service a try lately, it's worth checking out.

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About the author

Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to several information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was About.com's Web Search Guide.