Charging ahead with its portal push, America Online today quietly launched the long-awaited redesign of AOL.com.
AOL.com's new look organizes content and services into a more vertical navigation style by arranging the different properties into columns. The properties include Web search engine "NetFind," "Web Centers" content channels, personalized content page "My News," "Shopping," and "Web Utilities," which links to AOL Instant Messenger and AOL NetMail.
In contrast to the previous version, when content channels were prominently featured, all the properties are given equal space on the site.
"The 'Preview' of the redesigned AOL.com introduces a new look and new Web content and product offerings. AOL.com will continue to evolve over the coming months, with added personalization and customization of features to enhance its position as a premier destination site on the Web for both AOL members and the Internet audience at large," the welcome page reads.
"[AOL.com] will continue to serve as a gateway for our members when they want to search for information on the Internet," it continues.
The much-anticipated relaunch of AOL.com comes as other industry heavyweights such as Microsoft are close to unveiling their own bids to become players in the free Internet gateway space, currently led by the likes of Yahoo and Excite. Microsoft earlier this month began promoting its Start portal site by making it the default site for users logging out of Hotmail, its popular free email service.
Traditional media companies such as NBC and Disney also have made their own portal bids with hefty investments in Snap and Infoseek, respectively. Snap is a joint venture between NBC and CNET: The Computer Network, publisher of NEWS.COM.
Analysts say AOL has a distinct advantage in competing it the Web arena. Since its members get AOL.com as their default home page when accessing the Internet, it has enjoyed a tremendous built-in audience that attracts advertisers in scores.
However, AOL's push into the portal landscape comes relatvely late in the game. Some analysts note that companies with a de facto audience advantage such as AOL and Netscape Communications would be more significant leaders today if they had leveraged their traffic earlier.
"For AOL and Netscape, it's easy to kick them when they're down because they're so late to this game," said Patrick Keane, an analyst with Jupiter Communications. "Ultimately, with the traffic they're generating, they should be mentioned in the same breath as the Yahoos and Excites of the world."
The new design is in a trial period; the finalized version is expected to debut sometime this fall, said AOL spokeswoman Jeanie Ryan. She noted that the site today is suffering brief outages due to hardware upgrades.