Searching The AOL Time Warner Way

Netscape Search used to be a powerhouse in the search world, because so many people were routed to it via the Netscape browser. Those heady days have declined, as Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser now commands the lion share of web users. However, Netscape Search has a new lease on life, via the AOL Time Warner network.

The what network? Cast your mind back to last January. That's when AOL and Time Warner completed their merger, creating a single company that owns properties such as CNN, Time, the WB Network and many others -- not to mention AOL itself.

Potentially, AOL Time Warner could have tried to force all of these companies into a single portal, imitating the similar and failed attempt by Disney, which tried to make diverse sites such as ABC News, ESPN and Infoseek all part of the ill-fated Go portal.

Instead, AOL Time Warner is wisely letting its sites operate as independent entities. However, the company recognizes the advantage of somehow uniting these entities into a network -- and that uniting factor is Netscape.

In March, AOL Time Warner rolled out the "Netscape Toolbar." It's a small graphic that now appears on many AOL Time Warner web sites. It contains icons leading to the Netscape portal, Netscape Mail, the Netscape-edition of AOL's Instant Messenger and Netscape Search.

The toolbar initially appeared at the magazine web sites of Time, People and Money, as well as Warner Bros. Today, it has been extended to appear at other places, such as CNN, HBO and the WB Network.

The toolbar essentially makes Netscape Search the "official" search engine of AOL Time Warner -- with the notable exception of at AOL.com itself. But we'll get back to that in a bit....

The Netscape presence at all of these sites means that potentially, the Netscape portal may receive a new and steady stream of visitors. The same is true for the Netscape Search service, especially as it has its own dedicated button. Certainly Netscape says the toolbar, or "hat," has helped:

"As one might expect, the increased exposure of Netscape web services on AOL Time Warner brands such as CNN and Time has had a positive contribution of traffic to Netscape. All of the services displayed on the Netscape 'hat' have seen their numbers rise accordingly, but Netscape Search has experienced the greatest benefit from this added presence," said Myron Rosmarin, senior product manager of Netscape Search.

Reaquaint Yourself With Netscape Search

So what are these people being directed to Netscape Search likely to find? Despite a relaunch this summer, Netscape Search remains pretty much the same as it has been for the past two years, a source of human-powered search results.

Netscape continues to use the Open Directory Project as its primary catalog for answering queries. Though owned by AOL Time Warner, the Open Directory project is a volunteer-based effort to catalog the web. It now has over 40,000 editors and nearly 3 million URLs listed.

Matches from the Open Directory appear in the Reviewed Web Sites section of Netscape Search's results page. Below this, the "Web Site Categories" section will lead you into topics from the Open Directory that match your search. Selecting a category will bring up a list of sites from that topic, out of the Open Directory.

Of course, the Open Directory's editors haven't categorized everything. In cases where no ODP information is available, Netscape Search then "falls through" to providing matches from Google.

It's a partnership that has been maintained since mid-1999. You can also choose to search directly against Google by selecting the "Search again with Google" link that appears near the bottom of the Netscape Search results page.

New Features Available

So what new features came out of the last August's relaunch? The most dramatic was the change to the Netscape Search home page. It gained buttons allowing visitors to search using other search engines that have cut deals with Netscape. Specifically, these are Ask Jeeves, Google, LookSmart, Lycos and Overture (though it is still listed under the former name of GoTo).

Annoyingly, searching against any of the services listed on the Netscape Search home page, including Netscape Search itself, now pops open a new window with your results.

"Tabs" along the left-hand side of the Netscape Search home page give easy access to a variety of vertical searches. For example, the "Classifieds" tab gives you the ability to job search via Monster.com (if you further select the "Careers" option), while the "Money" tab provides access to stock quotes, and the "References" tab puts dictionary, almanac or encyclopedia information at your finger tips. Well, supposedly. I couldn't get the encyclopedia option to work, when I tried it.

A useful new addition to the results page is related searches functionality. When you do a search, you'll often find that other popular searches related to your original query can be found at the top of the results page, in the "Most popular related searches" area.

For example, a search for "cars" brings up related searches such as "used cars," "car insurance" and "car rental." Just select one of the related searches shown, and your search will be rerun with those terms.

It's a great way to narrow in on what you are looking for, and similar functionality is also offered by other search engines (a page below lists them). Ironically, Netscape Search-sibling AOL Search removed its own related searches functionality earlier this year.

Paid Listings At Netscape Search

Sadly, Netscape Search did not choose to change the title of its paid listings during the redesign process. These may appear below the related searches area and remain labeled "Partner Search Results."

This label is simply a euphemism for paid listings provided by Overture. In contrast, AOL Search, which also uses Overture links, clearly calls them "Sponsored Links." You'd think Netscape would do the same and avoid potential criticism, but the company says user testing has found the labeling is clear enough.

Behind the scenes, a key change to Netscape Search is that it now goes beyond just checking the title, URL and description of sites listed in the Open Directory. It also has indexed the full-text of each page listed. This means that it may return some URLs for a search, even if the search terms don't appear in the Open Directory's description. It's something that sibling service AOL Search has done for over a year.

Search And The Netscape Browser

Netscape is more than a web site, of course -- it is also a browser. The latest version of that browser, Netscape 6.1, was released in the summer, and search is deemed a key component of it.

Indeed, the address bar has a big "search" button sitting right next to it, so that the address bar essentially doubles as a search box that feeds into Netscape Search. Just enter your queries into the bar, push "search," and results from Netscape Search will appear.

AOL Search For AOL Users

So what about AOL Search? How does it fit into AOL Time Warner's plans, now that Netscape Search is being revitalized? It continues to have its own unique role, that of serving AOL users with search needs.

AOL Search is the only search engine that can allow AOL users to search across all of the proprietary content within the AOL service and the web itself. Anyone who accesses the service from within the AOL software gets this unique hybrid.

There's also an "external" version available on the web lacks the AOL content links. Other than that, it retains the same look and feel of the regular AOL Search service, which is good, considering the primary audience of AOL.com is AOL members seeking to access email or other AOL features when away from their software.

As AOL puts it, AOL.com is the "home away from home" for AOL members who are without their software. And, in case you were wondering, the "vast majority" of AOL Search users make use of the internal version, said Gerry Campbell, AOL's director of search and navigation

Like Netscape Search, AOL Search uses the Open Directory for some of its listings. However, it uses its own ranking algorithms to sort through this material. It also uses Inktomi as its crawler-based partner, rather than Google.

In addition, AOL Search recently abandoned its traditional delineation between these two listing sources. Previously, you would get first OPD listings, then Inktomi listings. Today, listings from either service are mixed together.

This mixing follows on the redesign change that AOL Search made last June, when it dropped a "tabbed" structure that let people choose to see either ODP or Inktomi listings. The tabs weren't found to be effective.

A more recent and welcome redesign was the return to listing 10 editorial results. AOL Search dropped to only five editorial results in June, but the company increased this amount back in mid-September.

"We found our members wanted more web results and were willing to scroll down a longer page in order to get them," Campbell said.

As seen, the Open Directory is a crucial part of listings for both Netscape Search and AOL Search. This means that being listed with the OPD is crucial, for webmasters. To help them in this task, the Open Directory has recently added some new information in its help section for site owners. Within this area are general tips on submitting, getting pages updated, guidelines on category placement and more.

A longer, more detailed version of this article is
available to Search Engine Watch members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member

Netscape Search
http://search.netscape.com

AOL Search (Internal Version)
http://aolsearch.aol.com

Ordinarily, you would reach this version of AOL Search using the AOL software, such as via the "Search" button, but it can also be reached via the URL above. This version will contain links to content that can only be viewed from within AOL.

AOL Search (External Version)
http://search.aol.com/

Open Directory
http://dmoz.org

Home of the volunteer web cataloging project that provides results not just to AOL Time Warner but also to anyone who wants them. Even non-AOL Time Warner search engines such as Google and Lycos make use of Open Directory information

How AOL Search Works
http://searchenginewatch.com/subscribers/aolsearch.html

For Search Engine Watch members, this page explains more about how the AOL Search service operates, especially from a submission point of view.

Open Directory Help Central
http://dmoz.org/help/helpmain.html

See the "For Submitters and Site Owners" section for general tips on submitting.

How The Open Directory Work
http://searchenginewatch.com/subscribers/opendirectory.html

More tips and information on submitting to the Open Directory, for Search Engine Watch members.

Review: Netscape 6.1
BrowserWatch, Aug. 23, 2001
http://browserwatch.internet.com/news/stories2001/news-20010823-1.html

Closer look at features in the new Netscape browser.

Search Assistance Features
http://searchenginewatch.com/facts/assistance.html

More about related searches functionality can be found here.

Netscape's New Mission
Washington Post, Aug. 21, 2001
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43772-2001Aug21.html

How the Netscape brand is being rebuilt to serve AOL Time Warner's needs.

AOL Meddling in ODP Causes Shift in Balance of Editorial Power
Traffick, Sept. 4, 2001
http://www.traffick.com/story/portals/200108_aolodp.asp

Long criticique of perceived problems with the Open Directory, in terms of how paid staff allegedly override the wishes of senior volunteer "meta" editors and other issues. Written by someone said to be a high-ranking ODP editor, though a pseudonym is used.