AOL announced the addition of new search features to its site this morning. The new AOL Search continues to be powered by core results from the Google index while adding relevant content from the AOL network.

Users will find an updated design that does away with the traditional tabbed interface and introduces quick text links for navigating between Web, image, audio/video and news results. AOL claims that the new design will lead to a more directed search experience. The new interface also features a drop down option on the query box that allows users to view recent search strings and suggestions for searches related to a users current query. AOL calls these suggestions "SmartBox™" and explain that it's designed to help users "refine and clarify their search." The example provided by AOL is that a user who types in the word "eagles" will be prompted by SmartBox to specify “The Eagles” (the band), “The Philadelphia Eagles” (football team), or “Eagles” (the bird).

AOL has also licensed clustering technology from Vivismo in order to add a new sense of organization to search results. While search results from the Google index are still displayed when a search is conducted, AOL has added a column to the left side of the results that aims to categorize content related to a user's query. The idea is to help users dig down to more specific information by narrowing their queries with additional keywords. The move makes AOL Search the first major search site to incorporate clustering technology.

I conducted a few test searches just to give AOL's new feature a test run. The results were accurate, but the text descriptions for narrowing the searches could use some work. For example, my first search query was "how much should my two month old eat." The first few search results listings were pretty spot on and included some forum threads from a variety of parenting Web sites. Had I simply been looking for an answer to my question, I would have been satisfied with what was presented. Taking the extra time to look over the new clustering feature left me a bit confused though.

The clustered results were divided into two categories: "baby eat" and "boy." Now, the phrase "baby eat" wouldn't be so bad if the first sub-listing under it wasn't "your child." I'm not sure I want to see the results generated by "baby eat + your child." As for the second baby is a girl, so the word "boy" doesn't seem all that relative and kind of makes me wonder why they assume that my baby is a boy. Semantics aside, narrowing the results with these options proved to be pretty handy. Selecting the somewhat scary "baby eat your child" option resulted in quite a few articles by pediatricians designed at answering any and all questions about feeding infants. Even clicking "toddler," which was the first sub-listing under "boy" provided accurate answers to my original question. In other words, AOL is providing what they promise, they just need to work a bit on their presentation.

AOL has also introduced a new feature dubbed "Snapshots" that is designed to help searchers take advantage of the information found in the AOL content network. Snapshots results only show up for relevant search terms and are more likely to be triggered by searches for products or services. A quick search for "columbus, ohio bbq" revealed no Snapshots information, but a second search for "dvd player" provided links to by DVD players or movies from an AOL partner site. This was slightly disappointing as AOL's press release about the new service made it sound like I was more likely to find AOL member reviews of various DVD players along with content like "how to buy a DVD player" or other informational articles.

AOL has also announced plans for partnerships with Fast Search & Transfer, Inc. and Copernic to further expand their local search and desktop search capabilities in the coming year.

Discuss the new AOL Search features at the Small Business Ideas Forum.
January 20, 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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