AOL looks to its parent to outwit Google

America Online taps into parent company to outdo rivals. Exec calls one new search feature a combo of "rocket science and smart editorial."

America Online is tapping the vast media assets of parent company Time Warner to outdo rivals Google, Yahoo and Microsoft in the search wars.

Unlike competitors that are investing heavily in new search technologies, AOL is instead focusing on providing Web surfers with quick access to news and entertainment while navigating the Web.

The Internet company will make several enhancements to its Internet search service this week. Those include introducing a new feature called "Snapshots"--categories of popular information, such as movie times, news and sports scores, which will appear in the body of related search results. The content is drawn from AOL and its parent company's vast media assets. It includes 2.2 million "widgets," or categories of information.

"AOL has decided in the search space to focus on what we do best and partner with others that can do better in other areas," said Gerry Campbell, vice president and general manager of search for AOL.

"Google powers our search and paid listings," Campbell said. "We're cutting our own path in the way that AOL users can find information on the Internet. We're putting the icing on top."

The company also expects this week to unveil the "AOL Search Toolbox," which details how to use Snapshots and other new shortcuts for searching the Web, including finding local information, using a calculator and booking a hotel room.

AOL has largely been an also-ran in Web search over the last several years, continuing its licensing agreement with No. 1 search provider Google as its own search traffic has dropped off. In contrast, competing portals Yahoo and Microsoft have committed many resources to building or buying homegrown search technology that could ultimately win back market share lost to Google in recent years.

Despite popular thinking that AOL is not in the game, Campbell said the company has been working on its Snapshots feature for the last two years and only this week officially branded it. The Snapshots feature, which Campbell calls a combination of "rocket science and smart editorial," is controlled by a team of highly trained editors and library scientists, who create business rules for placing targeted answers at the top of search results.

For example, a search for "Arafat" might call up news items from CNN News, a Time Warner company. Search results for "Polar Express" might show local theater and show times, a movie trailer and a review from "Entertainment Weekly," a Time Warner publication.

Rivals such as Yahoo and Ask Jeeves have built similar quick answers into their search results.

Other AOL Snapshot categories include Yellow Pages listings, recipes and audio and video clips from AOL unit Singingfish, which it bought last year.

Snapshots will be delivered with approximately 20 percent of the search queries at AOL, Campbell said. He added that AOL's search traffic has risen as the company has begun testing this feature in recent months.

"AOL, more so than anyone else, is a media company. We have the ability to...get assets, from health to sports to research, and pack them into search results," Campbell said.

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