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AOL.com Search Results and Search Engine Relationships
By Andrew Gerhart - March 22, 2002

In the third installment of this series of articles, we will continue down our path to understanding each search engine results by taking a look at another one of the portals that assumes a large portion of all Internet traffic: AOL.com. The AOL portal currently reigns in the top three search engines, directories, and portals for overall Internet traffic. Throughout this article we will dissect the search results within AOL.com and the AOL directory, how to submit to AOL, as well as what it will take and cost to have your site ranking well in the AOL search results.

The AOL portal offers two ways to search for the site of your choice. Visitors can either browse through the directory or use the AOL search engine to browse results. Neither the directory or search results are property of AOL.com though; the media giant has developed partnerships with other companies to provide the results to their portal.

The AOL directory is provided by the Open Directory Project. Before late January 2002, AOL used the ODP directory results within their search results in addition to the directory use. So, what provider or search engine is AOL.com now using for their search results?

In walks Inktomi, the company that is now providing search results for AOL's main search, as well as About.com, Espotting.com, HotBot, iWon.com, Looksmart, MSN.com, and more.

Inktomi's results are not the only search results that you are going to see on the search engine results pages. Just as with MSN.com, the results that you see and whose results are displayed will depend on the type of search that is performed.

If we perform a search for "Chevy", we will see all of the results that AOL.com uses for it's search results. At the top of the page are 3 listings under the heading "Recommended Sites". These listings are picked by AOL editors, and include AOL's own web sites, and other web sites that AOL deems to be related to your search. Let's look at these 3 sites: Site #1 opens the AOL application to bring you to the site in question if you have the AOL application installed on your machine, Site #2 is AOL owned, and Site #3 also attempts to open the AOL application if it is found on your machine. The next three listings on AOL's search results page are "Sponsored Links", which are paid listings that are from Overture.com's keyword bidding. Moving down the search results, the next 2 listings that are displayed are "AOL Keywords", which are sites that have paid AOL to be found under these keywords or keyword phrases. These listings also attempt to open the AOL application if it is installed on your machine. Something that should be mentioned about AOL is that if you do not have the AOL application installed on your machine, the links will bring you to a 404 page. Real user-friendly, right? The next results that are displayed on AOL's search results are the "Matching Sites", which are search results from Inktomi that are displayed in order of ranking according to Inktomi's algorithm.

When we perform a search for "Chevy Cars", we will notice some slight changes in the search results. The first change that you will see is there are only two "Recommended Sites" at the top instead three. The second change that you will see is that there is only one web site listed with "AOL keyword" underneath the web site listing. The Overture.com listings are still in the same place, and Inktomi's search results are still presented in the same place.

Now, if we perform a search for "Used Chevy Cars", we will see some real changes to AOL's search results pages. At the top of the search results there is now only one "Recommended Site", which still attempts to open the AOL application. Directly following this listing are the search results provided by Inktomi. This is significant because now that we have drilled into a three-word search, almost all of the paid listings and hand picked web sites have been eliminated. We are almost getting to pure search results!

Searching for "NJ Used Chevy Cars", finally rids the search results pages of all paid listings and hand picked web sites placed on the results pages buy AOL. It took us four words in our search, but we have finally drilled down far enough to bring actual search results to the top of the results page.

Before we get into the specifics of ranking on AOL.com and what it will cost you, let's discuss how to submit to AOL.

There are a number of different options to take when submitting a site to AOL, most of which need to be pursued. To have your website listed in the AOL directory, you will need to submit your web site to the Open Directory Project via the AOL submit page. To submit to Inktomi's database, you will need to set up an account with one of Inktomi's resellers.

What will it cost you to rank well within AOL.com's search results? To have your web site listed as a "Recommended Site" by AOL you will need to have an authoritative web site within the keyword market. For example, one of the "Recommended Sites" for the keyword search "Chevy" is the official Chevrolet web site. To have your web site listed within the "Sponsored Links" you will need to open an account with Overture.com and bid on the keywords that you would like your site to be found under. Since you need to be listed in the top 3 on Overture to have your listing show in the AOL results, you would need to pay $0.54 a click (as of March 20, 2002) for the keyword "Chevy". With Overture reporting 81,976 searches being performed a month for this keyword, the cost of this account can add up rather quickly. An AOL keyword does not have a set price, but we do know that the price paid for an AOL keyword is extremely expensive. Large corporations with large marketing budgets are usually the types who pursue this form of marketing and promotion within AOL. The price for an Inktomi account is $39 for the first URL for a year, and $25 for each additional URL. Some web pages are in the Inktomi databases that do not pay the subscription price, but a web site that is not currently in the Inktomi database shouldn't count on being included in the database for free anytime soon. A listing in the Open Directory Project is free, but getting into the database may take a considerable amount of time and is sometimes difficult.

So, we have taken a look at AOL's search results, dissected them to see whose results appear where and for what searches, and discussed how much it will cost you to appear in the results. How does this affect you, your web site, and your search engine optimization campaign?

In many ways, AOL's search results are similar to MSN.com's search results. One of the similarities between the two portals is the fact that to rank well you will have to pay a fee to someone, whether it is AOL, one of Inktomi's resellers, or Overture. Just as we discussed with MSN, the strategy and avenues pursued to rank well will vary depending on the keyword or keyword phrase being targeted. For a highly competitive market, it may be beneficial to pursue an Inktomi account, an Overture account, as well as finding out about AOL's "Recommended Sites". For a moderately competitive market, an Inktomi account should be pursued, and possibly in some cases an Overture account to insure higher conversion rates and visibility.

The AOL portal will cost you for a good listing in most cases, but just as with MSN and Yahoo, you will see a return on investment. A web master or SEO professional should assess the situation before paying the submission fees. What is there to gain from reaching AOL's users? Are you hoping to increase sales or number of qualified leads sent in through the web site through AOL? A "yes' to these questions would be enough to pay the submission fee and pursue a good ranking in AOL, as there is a high level of traffic at AOL.com.

The next installments of this article will deal with Google, AllTheWeb, AltaVista, AskJeeves, and Netscape.