AOL Search: Playing In the Big Leagues Now

AOL is rolling out several enhancements to its core search functionality that position it as a clear contender in the battle for eyeballs between Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves and MSN Search.

As part of its ongoing move toward becoming a web portal rather than a closed “gated neighborhood,” the new features will be included both in AOL web search as well as the proprietary client software used by AOL members. The enhancements are being rolled out to members today, with the AOL web search portal scheduled to be updated early next week.

Using size measures, AOL is already a top-tier player, processing more than 700 unique searches per month from more than 35 million unique users. Most of those searches come from members using the AOL client, but the new features significantly enhance the appeal of AOL Search for all web users.

“We’re mid-transition in a major strategic shift,” said Gerry Campbell, vice president and general manager of AOL Search & Navigation. “We’re a player in search and we’re now putting our feet into motion into being generally available.”

Here’s a look at what’s new at AOL Search. Remember, these changes won’t be visible until sometime next week on the AOL web Search home page.

Better Answers Faster

AOL Search’s mission is “better answers faster” and virtually all of the new enhancements to the service support that goal.

For starters, there’s a new look to the AOL Search homepage. AOL has removed most the color from the page and it now offers a tabless user interface. A portion of the page contains a constantly updated “ticker” of “Hot Searches.”

AOL has also introduced personalization features via another box that appears on both the home page and result pages that displays your recent queries, storing a total of 50 in a rolling list. Query strings are saved via a cookie if you access AOL Search via the web while AOL subscribers can choose to have their recent searches saved on an AOL server allowing access to them on any computer.

You also have complete control over your history, able to selectively delete queries or remove your entire search history.

Search result pages also offer new features. Perhaps most noticeable is the addition of dynamic clustering using technology licensed from Vivisimo. Clusters are labeled “web matches” and appear on the upper left of search result pages.

AOL is also rolling out what they call “Smartbox” technology. Smartbox offers dynamic query refinements by monitoring your search terms as you type and offering suggestions before you actually click the search button. The technology has been used on AOL’s Pinpoint Shopping site since October. It can be a bit disconcerting to use at first, but over time it’s a very useful tool for narrowing and focus queries. Importantly, it doesn’t interfere with your search if you opt not to use it.

For the past few months AOL has been rolling out what they call “AOL Snapshots” at the top of search results for many types of queries. AOL Snapshots are editorially programmed packages that present relevant content apart from web search results, similar to Ask Jeeves’ smart search results.

“We’re turning search from a query driven list of results into a programming driven environment,” said Campbell. “Thee are certain cases where content can actually be the answer. As a user I would prefer not to dig through results.” Snapshots are a first step toward accomplishing that end, according to Campbell.

AOL has a staff of about 60 people devoted to building and organizing Snapshots. The company claims to have about 2.5 million Snapshots currently programmed that cover about 20% of all AOL Search queries. Content for Snapshots comes from other Time Warner properties, content partners like WebMD and other sources.

Snapshots have been expanded to include editorial and member ratings for local businesses, restaurants and other nearby places of interest if you have provided AOL Search with your zip code. This also enables a new “My Locations” functionality that lets you add your own ratings.

You can find a list of some Snapshots and more information about them in the AOL Search Toolbox.

Coming Soon to AOL Search

AOL announced several new services, tools and partnerships which will take effect in the coming weeks. These include a new and expanded local search featuring business listings from AOL yellow pages and AOL city guide, movie information from Moviefone, Maps from Mapquest and content from other partners.

Interestingly, AOL has also struck a deal with FAST Search and Transfer to crawl the web for local information, rather than licensing crawled local search data from web search partner Google. When asked why AOL went with FAST over Google Campbell sidestepped the issue and said that AOL and Google work together in many areas and choose not to work together in others. When pressed, he did acknowledge that AOL simply liked FAST’s local search better than Google’s.

FAST was the original developer of the AlltheWeb search engine, purchased by Overture and then later absorbed into the Yahoo empire. As part of the deal, FAST retained its core web crawling technology, which is now in place at the U.S. government’s FirstGov portal, Italian internet portal Virgilio and elsewhere.

AOL also plans to roll out an integrated desktop search tool with technology licensed from Copernic. At first this will be integrated into the explorer bar of Internet Explorer, but will eventually become a standalone implementation, according to Campbell. The company plans to extend the current features of Copernic Desktop search to handle things like email and other AOL content.

Advertisers will have the opportunity to participate in a new pay-per-call program through a new partnership with Ingenio. These listings will complement existing Google sponsored links on AOL Search result pages, as well as on other AOL properties.

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the AOL Search Moves Up to the Big Leagues discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

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