New AOL: It’s Near, It’s Here, It’s. . .Actually, Pretty Good

In today’s Online Media Daily, the always astute Gavin O’Malley reports on the financial turnaround at America Online, sketching out its transformation from Time-Warner deadweight to rising star.  Most of the improvement, O’Malley reports, derives from some good acquisitions and strategic changes.

But this raises my favorite subject: What does the user experience at AOL

The short answer: Pretty much what they’ve experienced since 2005, when the service was opened up the world gratis.

But a major renovation is imminent–only “a few days” away, if such promisory notes can ever be trusted. [It may be here already: After I visited the the beta preview page and returned to, the beta site was live in my browser. I have no idea whether the new site is live to all now.]

At first pass, the updated AOL eerily resembles Yahoo–so much so that it almost looks like a re-skinning of the Yahoo home page.. [Beta testers have been vocal on this matter in AOL’s beta blog.]

That [non-] issue aside, the site seems prepared to do a few smart things well:

A high degree of customization: wide page, narrow page, red page, blue page, this module, that module, etc. Common customization features, but all good.

Snag is the AOL term of art for RSS [an excellent move. The phrase RSS has always struck me as doomed to geek jargon, a word that will only slow mainstream adoption]. Click “snag” and you get a pull-down that will one-click the feed to the usual suspects–Netvibes, Pageflakes, MyAol (duh), even Google and Windows Live.

A goosed search function. The preview page promises the ability to “search less and discover more.” Hmm. We’ll see. This sounds a bit like one of those “eat more/weigh less” diets to me. My few searches produced results that resembled Google’s as much as the site itself resembles Yahoo. 

A local-info module that appears at least state-of-the-field.

Vastly improved news, gussied up with all the proper 2.0 features: Navigation by tags; a blogged-about tagcloud; left-nav links to most read/most commented on/most recently commented on [nice touch there].; right nav to more conventional presentation of news headlines with links, plus selected blogs. I was surprised how much news I wanted to read was presented via the various entry points. Most insufferable feature: The idiot instant “polls” that sit next to major stories like “kick me” signs. [Note to project team: You have one week to remove them.]

A video service that’s more easily navigated than most, and gives signficant prominence to professional/commercial videos. There is also a promise (threat?) that the service will offer paid content. Life being what it is, like all video 2.0fferings AOL’s features way too much UGC [Ugly Goofy Crap]. My view of the video service was limited by the fact that–and I report this without bitterness–video pages crashed my allegedly-stable-as-Linux IE-on-Vista brower repeatedly.

There will be more to say. The site will inevitably evolve. It may improve.

Whether it matches the company’s rising financial fortunes. . .that’s another matter.


Explore posts in the same categories: AOL, news, search, Time-Warner, video, widgets

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