Web novices and America Online subscribers will get plenty of mileage out of AOL's spruced-up search engine, which offers multimedia and local searches, a search box that makes suggestions as you type, search Spotlights that contain at-a-glance info, and the ability to save your search history (or not). That said, those looking for more advanced features in their searches--such as cached pages or thumbnails of their multimedia results--would be better off with Yahoo or Google.
Like Google and most of the big search players, AOL Search has whittled its main page down to a search box and links underneath for Web, Images, Audio & Video, News, and Local searches. Start typing within the search box, and a window slides open underneath, offering real-time suggestions based on what you've just entered. The SmartBox, as it's called, is a great idea but clearly a work in progress. While it recognizes stock tickers and takes, say, the term eagles and breaks out searches for the Philadelphia Eagles, the venerable rock group, and the actual bird, it rarely offers suggestions for misspelled or incomplete words.
AOL's search results page looks sharp. Prominently featured is the Snapshot area, a slick section above the main results that's programmed for various popular search terms. Type in Martha Stewart, for example, and you'll get a picture of the domestic diva along with links to the latest news, message boards, company info, and stock quotes. On the other hand, searching on The Ring 2 will return a poster image, links to reviews and trailers, and local showtimes.
Related searches appear categorized in the left column. We like that you don't have to sign in to have your searches saved and that you can delete individual items or turn the Recent Search History feature off. Reasonably well-marked sponsored results appear above and below more neutral findings. Shopping results appear near the bottom of the page. News searches return a fair number of stories with images, but actual logged-in AOL members get more comprehensive results. Multimedia queries give you the play quality and program length, but only AOL Broadband results include thumbnails. We also missed the ability to call up cached versions of Web pages, a handy tool for finding your search terms on oft-updated pages. We were impressed with AOL Search's local search, which lets you enter and save multiple street addresses. It also provides driving directions, complete with maps. AOL's downloadable, IE-only toolbar blocks pop-ups and reports new e-mail received in your AOL Mail in-box. The AOL Search Help section doesn't provide detailed search examples but includes a basic FAQ for those new to the site.