update The company unveils an expanded search offering that lets consumers quickly narrow queries, among other new features. Images: AOL broadens its search
AOL also announced several partnerships and plans that will enable it to allow users to search both for online information and computer files from one location on its Web site. In addition, the online giant is expanding its local search offerings and offering advertisers a way to track which local markets their customers are coming from.
"These announcements are part of our overall momentum, as we begin to refocus our attention on the general Web audience," said Gerry Campbell, general manager of AOL search and navigation. "We've previously been focused on AOL members in the client, then on the Web. And now we're building an audience among non-AOL members...We've had tremendous success with AOL Search from our members' perspective, and now we're broadening the scope of who are members are."
The changes to the site will be immediate for AOL subscribers, but for the general Web audience the AOL Search window won't point to the new version until Monday.
AOL is ramping up its search efforts at a time when the market is hot. Other companies, from Microsoft's MSN to Google to Yahoo, have recently bolstered their offerings in search.
AOL has added a clustering technology to AOL Search to automatically organize relevant search results by topics. That information is displayed alongside the list of general Web search results and is designed to reduce the need to wade through a long list.
AOL SmartBox, meanwhile, is an automatic search feature that allows users to view relevant categories after hitting the search button. For example, after typing the word "eagles" and hitting the search button, a list will appear across the top of the search page with the music band "The Eagles," football team "The Philadelphia Eagles," and the bird "eagles." Below those three categories are a list of sponsored links and matching Web sites.
A third revision includes Snapshots, which appears at the top of some results pages and provides hyperlinks to relevant content on the search subject. People who click on the Eagles music band, for example, will find a small photo of its members, as well as links to their biography and discography, and the ability to buy their CDs and other related products.
AOL also has revamped its shopping search to allow its members to narrow results for products based on category, brand, price, store and merchant rating.
Future offerings will center on localized search and desktop search.
AOL has entered into a license agreement with Copernic for desktop search technology. Under the agreement, AOL Search will provideCopernic's technology to enable members to search for information online and computer files from one place.
Desktop search has been gaining traction since late last year, with Microsoft, Google and Ask Jeeves jumping into the field. Yahoo announced its entry into the market with a test version of desktop search in January, and AOL, which began a beta late last year, is now formally announcing its entry. AOL said its desktop search offering is currently in beta and no specific launch date has been set.
AOL is also teaming with Fast Search & Transfer in an effort to expand its local search services and results. The idea is to provide users with more customized results based on their geographic locations. For example, a person living in Los Angeles may type "Italian restaurant" into the search box, and Los Angeles-based Italian restaurants would be the first to appear in the query results. Again, no release date for this feature has been set.
As part of that effort, AOL is making a push to attract local advertisers by offering them a means to get further insight into which geographic locations their customers are coming from. AOL, via its partnership with Ingenio, will allow advertisers to pay for their ads based on whether a prospective customer calls them by phone after viewing their advertisement, rather than paying AOL based on which customers click on their ads. Although advertisers can currently sign up for the Ingenio network, the ads will not be distributed across AOL properties until an undisclosed future date.
The U.S. local advertising market is estimated to be worth $100 billion, and other search companies, such as Yahoo and Google, ramped up their localized search efforts last fall.
Despite some of the preceding announcements from competitors, Campbell said AOL Search has not been late to the game with its offerings.
"We are in the local search game and have always been?and I would reject the notion we're late to desktop search," he said. "We released a (desktop search) beta within days of Google's release. We're not late to the party. Perhaps we're just underappreciated, and now that's changing as we change the focus of our audience."