AOL Home Page Redesign A Dead Ringer For Yahoo

From cars to candy bars, product differentiation is a priority for most marketers. But apparently not when it comes to portal home pages, judging by AOL.com's new front door. It bears a striking resemblance to Yahoo's nearly year-old home page design.

"Unless you put your thumb over their brands, you can't tell the difference," said Allen Adamson, managing director of WPP's brand development consultancy Landor Associates.

What AOL is calling "the next generation of the AOL.com portal," and which launched in beta last week, drew similar comments industry-wide.

Here's the new AOL.

Here's Yahoo.

"The least they could have done was choose different colors," joked Mike Goodman, director of Yankee Group's consumer research group.

For the record, Yahoo.com is white with a faintly blue hue, while AOL's new home page is white with a faintly pink hue. Yahoo.com launched in July of last year, and AOL's new page uses nearly an identical product layout and AJAX technology. The left nav bar lifts directly from Yahoo, with a small icon and section name.

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It even appears as if AOL's employees are in on the joke.

Wrote Web expert Michael Arrington on his popular TechCrunch blog: "Internally, I'm hearing AOLers refer to the new portal as 'the Yahoo Portal,' although its official name is AOL 3.0."

Even officially, AOL is copping to the likeness. "Generally speaking, all portals provide a basic set of features and functionality (mail, news, weather, local information) so similarities are inevitable," an AOL spokesperson told OnlineMediaDaily.

AOL.com sets itself apart from the competition in several ways, she said--citing more local content, an auto-rotating carousel of site features, and unlimited e-mail storage for users without forcing them to sign up for it.

But Yahoo.com also offers these very things. Still, Yahoo declined to comment on AOL.com's redesign.

So, what's the significance of these similarities?

"The best brands differentiate across the entire experience," said Adamson of Landor Associates. "It says to me that they're still struggling to find a way to tell people why they should choose AOL over Yahoo or another portal."

Said analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Intelligence: "In the long run it probably makes sense to differentiate like Google with its famously bare home page."

Sterling, however, did note that most portals--including the new AOL.com--are customizable by the user, which makes their default facades less important.

"We may ultimately see these home pages become completely personalized," said Sterling. "I think that's the direction the portals are going in even if users are slow to adopt it."

Some analysts, meanwhile, see the look of a portal's home page as a trivial matter.

"What matters is the content and features," said Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research. "That's where a portal needs to differentiate itself."

"They've made it as easy to navigate as possible," said Mark Egan, account director for the Media Contacts division of MPG. "I think that's the most important thing."

"It's a credit to Yahoo's solid design, which maybe doesn't need much room for improvement," added Yankee Group's Goodman.

"As the old saying goes," he added, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

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