AOL Puts Its Mark on Search

AOL updated its search with features that bring it on a par with rivals — but with several added twists.

The new AOL Search features went live on Wednesday, offering searchers results that consolidate Web sites, videos, audio clips, pictures, and products, including exclusive audio and video content. Local and News results will be added soon; AOL Search already includes results from CNN and a few other partners.

AOL Web search results come from Google, so the company is focusing on enhancements to the user interface and proprietary content to differentiate itself, according to Jim Riesenbach, senior vice president of AOL Search & Directional Media.

“We’re trying to create a slightly different experience that’s more targeted to what we believe our users are looking for and to the assets we have,” he said.

A key element of that differentiation is AOL’s access to proprietary or exclusive media assets through its parent Time Warner or partners. While Web search results come from Google, AOL has a unique source for multimedia results. Its Singingfish multimedia search engine will search the media assets of AOL, Time Warner and partners that have licensed content.

For example, a search for Live8 might return clips from the concerts that AOL streamed online. Riesenbach said that some searches would return results available on no other search engine.

“We’ve focused on multimedia search and bringing that into the core search experience in a way no one else has done,” Riesenbach said. “We have a huge array of assets in all these areas.”

While search rivals MSN, Yahoo , Google and Ask Jeeves offer the ability to perform searches of specific kinds of content such as video, audio, images and news, for the most part they require the searcher to choose between the different content types. The new AOL Search returns results from all content types, separated into six categories: pictures, video, audio, news, local and shopping.

Riesenbach stopped short of saying that traditional text search has become a commodity, but he noted that, while the top three are locked in a race to improve relevance, “The increments of improvement are less significant today than they were a few years ago,” he said. “[By relying on Google’s Web index], we don’t have to make investments in this area where there are diminishing returns.”

Another new feature introduced today lets users save search results, so that the next time they perform the same search, it will automatically appear at the top of the results. They can choose to save searches manually by clicking a scissors icon or opt to have AOL Search automatically remember searches from the last 30 days. Saved Searches are organized a box in the left-hand column of the page. If a user is signed in to AOL, searches are saved on AOL’s servers, where they can be accessed from any machine.

New clustering technology takes the top 100 search results and groups them into topics, in order to make it easier for people to refine their searches.

“People don’t know how to ask the right question to get what they’re looking for,” said Riesenbach. “We provide the tools to help them.” He said the clustering is an example of AOL Search’s focus on personalized tools that adapt to what users do.

The company also added Quick Answers, a natural-language query feature that attempts to provide answers to specific questions entered into the search box. Quick Answers are drawn from such sources as the CIA Fact Book, Merriam-Webster, Worldbook Encyclopedia, Wikipedia and the U.S. Census.

“We’re using Google as our core technology,” Riesenbach said, “but doing a whole lot more that adds value and a unique experience.”

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