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 AOL.com, 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 AOL.com 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.