Some nasty, narrow-minded jades might say, "America Online is to the Internet as Commodore is to personal computing." To the seasoned Web surfer, AOL's little neighborhood might seem like the equivalent of a bike with training wheels. But the 28.5 million global subscribers to the AOL service constitute too sizable of a Web community to be ignored. Earlier this year, AOL introduced an array of enhancements, seemingly designed to prove that while it might not have the sex appeal of Web giants like Google and MSN, it is a contender in the ongoing search sweepstakes.
AOL's strength has always been as a popularizer rather than an innovator, and true to form, there's a charming lack of "Not Invented Here" chauvinism to its latest offering. For instance, AOL has licensed Vivisimo's dynamic clustering technology to create the "Web Matches" that appear to the left of the AOL content called "Snapshots" at the top of results pages. (Et tu, Clusty?) To generate local search results, they've opted to use Fast Search and Transfer's crawler, rather than their regular partner.
In an interesting development for local search marketers, AOL has a deal with Ingenio that will allow it to charge advertisers by the phone call, not the click, opening the search field to smaller merchants who lack strong Web presences. AOL plans to get into the integrated desktop search act. Using a tool developed by Copernic, AOL users will soon be able to comb through their hard drives, e-mail, and Internet content.
Of course, I type too fast to take advantage of AOL's "SmartBox" (which generates relevant categories while you're typing your search term, for example, "Company" or "River" for "Amazon"), but I can see how some people might find it useful. And, I can already hear the clicking of on-the-job Web surfers as they select the "Clear All" or "Turn Off" options on AOL's "Recent Search History."