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AOL begins testing new site revamp

Long-awaited redesign of Web portal will feel more like the Internet giant's subscriber service, CNET News.com has learned.

America Online has begun quietly testing a swanky redesign of its home page, taking another stab at becoming a Web portal again, CNET News.com has learned.

A preliminary mock-up of the redesigned AOL.com shows a greater emphasis on being able to customize the page. The site uses a layout of different information boxes for which customers can choose an array of content feeds, such as news headlines or local movie listings.

Web search is featured prominently at the top of the page, and there is a dedicated area for commercial search links. AOL uses Google's sponsored search results, and it receives a percentage of revenue whenever people click on those links. Last quarter, commercial search from Google contributed $72 million in revenue, up from $31 million the year before.

On the cosmetic side, the site is less cluttered than its current form and uses more icons to link to other company-branded sites. Icons at the top link to popular services such as e-mail, instant messaging, shopping and directory services. When placing the cursor over the icons, drop-down menus appear and offer links to specific services. Under "Find It Fast," smaller search bars open to let people find driving directions, recipes or phone numbers.

"We started beta testing as of Friday evening," AOL spokeswoman Anne Bentley said. She declined to comment on when the site would launch officially.

She added that the beta site would be available only to AOL members when it launches, and that nonmembers would still get a promotional site. However, Time Warner executives have indicated their intention to make AOL.com more appealing to the general Web audience. Future versions of the site will include more exclusive content from the proprietary service.

AOL.com's redesign marks the online giant's latest entry into the Web portal game. Over the years, AOL has tried many times to beef up its Web portal business against Yahoo and MSN through various incarnations of the site and that of its Netscape subsidiary. But these efforts never took off, since most of AOL's resources were poured into its subscription dial-up service.

And with more than 3 million dial-up customers lost in two years to broadband services and lower-priced Internet service providers, AOL is trying to revive its fortunes on the Web.

Despite remaining one of the Web's most visited sites, due to being the default home page for AOL's proprietary service, AOL.com has largely served as a promotional vehicle. The site contains blaring animated ads for its dial-up and broadband products, and lets AOL members access their e-mail accounts via the Web.

Now that Web advertising, especially in commercial search, has rebounded, AOL is hoping to get a piece of the action. In April, AOL started converting areas of its online service from its proprietary Rainman code into the HTML Web standard. The conversion was meant to help AOL publish content that could be transferable from its closed-garden subscription service onto the refurbished Web site.

"This enables us to extend programming outside of (AOL's) proprietary client environment," Jim Bankoff, AOL's executive vice president of programming, said in an April interview. "This system will allow us to do it more aggressively."

AOL will begin by promoting some of its exclusive programs on the Web, such as its live music and TV events. The idea is to draw larger Web audiences to not only sell advertising, but also to convince them to subscribe to AOL for Broadband.

Comparison shopping to launch next week
Separately, AOL confirmed that it will unveil a new comparison shopping site called In-Store in hopes of competing against similar services on Yahoo, Google and Shopping.com. AOL will get paid every time someone clicks on a vendor ad when searching for products and comparing prices.

The site will use a product search engine called "Pinpoint Shopping," seen as a drop-down menu for more specific queries. Comparison shopping engine BizRate.com is powering Pinpoint Shopping, and the company will take share of all vendor payments through the site.

An AOL spokeswoman confirmed details of the new site, which were first reported by The New York Times.