America Online announced several new features for AOL Search this morning in a bid to help create a more customizable and comprehensive search experience. The new features are the result of extensive consumer testing on AOL's part and are available as of this morning at

Although AOL's search technology is currently powered by Google, AOL has always worked to put their own spin on search. Some of the new features aren't much different from Google's own personalized search results options, but others are new and certainly worth looking in to.

For starters, AOL has taken some of their specialized search topics and meshed the results with their standard algorithmic listings. That means that users will now get a combination of Google results along with audio and video clips, pictures and product listings. They've also said that they plan to add local and news results to the mix before too long. They've also added their Smartbox Suggestions feature which attempts to guess what you're looking for as you type.

Some other new features:

Saved Searches:

This feature was designed to allow users to click on a result and save it for future searches. It works by popping up an image of a pair of scissors whenever a user mouses over a search result. Selecting the scissors icon causes the result to be snipped and and stored. The idea is to help people find sites that they've liked it then past and to automatically push them to the top of the rankings on any future searches.

These searches are organized for easy reference down the road and can be saved as "recent searches" for up to thirty days. Users can access these saved searches by selecting a text link that appears near the search box. While it's nice that users don't need to login to access these features, it also means that you can't login and access your personalized search history from a computer other than your own.

Quick Answers:

Looking for a quick answer to a simple question and don't feel like actually visiting a web page? AOL's new Quick Answers is supposed to be the key to this, but like similar features on other engines, this one still has a ways to go. The idea is to allow users to enter natural-language search queries and to then match up those searches with AOL's existing Snapshot Answers feature.

For instance, when I typed in "what is the population of Ohio" I get a "(quick) answer" that says 11.3 million. A second query asking "who is Billy Graham" returned a result that said: " Billy Graham, born November 7, 1918 in Charlotte, North Carolina, United States, is an evangelist, minister. Nationality: American." I also found plenty of searches that seemed obvious, but that had no results. ("how many inches in a foot," or "who built the Brooklyn Bridge?")

(It's also clear that AOL's programming team either isn't geeky enough, or was working to fast as no answer is returned for the questions "what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?" and "what is the ultimate answer to live, the universe and everything?")

The feature works by pulling data from sources like the CIA Fact Book, the Worldbook Encyclopedia, Wikipedia and Merriam-Webster. The answers, if there is one, appear above the web results and are usually short snippets with a link to the source of the information. While this could be a handy feature anywhere, it's takes time to get enough data entered to start to be able to answer all of the common questions that people could have.

Expanded Snapshots Answers:

The final new feature to be added to AOL search is actually an expansion of an existing option. Snapshot Answers have been a part of AOL search for a while now, compiled by a team of editors and manually placed at the top of the search results for certain queries. AOL has expanded that program to cover more than four million search terms along with some Spanish-language queries.

Overall, the new additions are useful, especially for searchers that are looking for quick answers to common questions. AOL also continues to show that you don't necessarily have to have your own algorithm to create a unique search experience.

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October 5, 2005

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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