Services & Software

AOL's Propeller changes look, algorithm

AOL's social-news site continues to change identities. Will this latest shift cast off some of its most hard-core users?

Propeller, AOL's social-news site that's never really managed to catch on, has a brand new look Tuesday. It's the third major rehaul since the service was launched as in mid-2006. Gone are the drab blacks, greens, and oranges from the days along with the teeny, tiny text that made me reach for the Ctrl+ shortcut in my browser. In its place is a more retro scheme with vibrant colors and a banana-shaped mustached mascot.

That's not the biggest change though. The old voting system that mimicked Digg's one vote per user model has been turned on its head with a new one that ranks stories on a scale from 1 to 10 with some of the hottest stories getting play on the front page of Netscape (formerly's domain) and eventually

Propeller's new look is retro--to the max. (Click to enlarge.) CNET Networks

The new scoring system is actually a hybrid of any story's play within the Propeller community, combining user votes (called "props") with clicks, user comments, and overall voting velocity. My guess is that while more transparent, this new system won't make a whole lot of sense to people who want to click on a voting button and see a noticeable change. At the moment, coming to the front door of Propeller yields an entire page of stories ranked 10. Newbie users who have come to expect a more standard ranking system on services like Reddit and Digg will be scratching their heads to find the good stuff.

Other changes that are bound to confuse users are the new commenting system and upcoming stories queue.

The comment system throws in a somewhat befuddling five-star ranking system that includes a karma tracker, along with two different ways to expand and contract comment threads to save space. For longer threads you'll have to expand the conversation 25 comments at a time, making it beneficial to jack someone else's thread if only to get higher screen presence.

Likewise, the upcoming stories queue called "Just In" is simply overwhelming. It houses upcoming stories in a similar fashion to Digg Spy, however you can't pause the stream to dig through it, or sort out what types of site activity you want to filter out. In perusing links, simply scrolling down the page made me lose track of a story I was going to come back to. With more users, that same story could fly right off the page.

There is light at the end of the tunnel for Propeller, and that light is groups, a feature that lets people submit and watch stories by interest just like the groups functionality found on FriendFeed. Each user can only create one group (ever), but can join as many as they'd like, something that's bound to change as the service adapts. For now you can browse through a directory of groups and contribute links and discussion once you've joined up.

Propeller still has one huge weapon on its side and that's two pages that get a lot of traffic (Netscape and These can be leveraged to promote some of Propeller's group activity and story promotion. As we've seen with Yahoo's Buzz community, smart leveraging makes people and publishers want to use your tool. In the case of Propeller, we just haven't seen that same system take off. (Pardon the pun.)