In refreshing its search features and partnerships, America Online Inc. is trying to grab a greater share of Web search traffic and expand its sources of search-based ad revenue.
But whether it can snag a bigger search presence in a market dominated by Google Inc, Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.s MSN division remains in doubt, search experts said.
On Thursday, the Dulles, Va., company unveiled a new version of AOL Search with a focus on the general Web audience and not just subscribers to the AOL Internet service. AOL overall is working to turn AOL.com into a more general portal this year, said Gerry Campbell, vice president and general manager of AOL Search.
“There is a major strategic shift taking place within AOL, and this release is part of the bigger picture,” Campbell said. “This release is all about taking AOLs Web search experience and making it available on the [general] Web.”
New features include clustering of search results into topics and a “SmartBox” tool that suggests refined search queries as a search is entered. AOL also has expanded “Snapshots,” which are boxes appearing atop search results that highlight related information drawn from AOLs network of sites, such as movie times or weather.
The expanded search features became available in AOLs subscriber software Thursday and will be extended to the AOL.com search site early next week, Campbell said. AOL is aiming to give users “better answers faster” with the search revamp, he said.
While AOL tries to target AOL.com to a wider audience, it could face an uphill battle in positioning AOL Search as a top-tier search engine, said Melissa Burgess, director of business development at search-engine marketing company IMPAQT.
“AOL, in trying to understand that search is super-important to overall traffic and ad revenue, is trying to make up for the advancements made in some of the other search engines and to entice new people to come to their search engine,” Burgess said. “Its going to be hard … I dont think any of the other engines will lose market share percentages because AOL is beefing up its search features.”
AOL, when combined with other search sites from its parent, Time Warner, accounts for about 9 percent of U.S. Web searches, far below Google, Yahoo and MSN, according to comScore Networks Inc. AOLs share also has fallen almost 3 percentage points since July.
Google leads with 34 percent of searches, while Yahoo holds a 32 percent share. MSN has a 17 percent share, according to comScore.
But Campbell said AOL is determined to reach a broader audience both with search and with AOL.coms other services.
“Its not a small task, but its one the company is committed to,” he said. “We know that people make portal decisions largely on the search experience that is delivered.”
AOL is taking a different tack from other major search sites. It has continued to partner with Google for its main search results, rather than building its own Web index from scratch.
The partnering strategy became more apparent in the search upgrade. It licensed the technology behind the new clustering feature from startup Vivisimo Inc. AOL also is working with FAST Search & Transfer Inc. to develop a crawler for geographically targeted results, and confirmed that it is licensing desktop-search technology from Copernic, Campbell said.
Campbell declined to say when the FAST-powered crawler would be ready or when AOLs desktop search would move out of beta. AOL last year began testing a desktop-search tool that is tied into a forthcoming AOL-branded Web browser.
“Our strategy very simply is to innovate on top of a great partnership,” Campbell said of Google.
To Gartner Inc. research director Allen Weiner, AOL is making significant user improvements in its search site with features such as clustering. He said the company is smart to continue down a path of partnering.
“One of things that is important in search is to balance the big investments in technology with bigger investments in how end-users are going to be able to utilize the search experience,” Weiner said. “I like what they have done here in achieving that balance.”
On the revenue side, AOL also expanded beyond its Google partnership. AOL already displays Googles sponsored listings alongside search results.
Now it also is selling search-based ads to companies holding major trademarks. Called Trademark Layer, the AOL program lets brands buy a search term for which they own a trademark. When a user queries the trademarked term, an ad with a company logo appears before search results, Campbell said. The program is in beta, and AOL has been testing it for several months, he said.
Googles sponsored listings also will appear in paid results, but the program offers a way for trademark-holders to ensure that they appear first, Campbell said. Google lets any company bid on the use of trademarks as keyword triggers for paid search results, and Googles approach has led to legal challenges from trademark holders.
In another partnership, AOL is moving into pay-per-call ads from startup Ingenio Inc. The pay-per-call ads are targeted to business without a Web presence and will work like sponsored listings. Advertisers will pay when a searcher calls a special phone number rather than when they click a link. AOL also will receive a share of the revenue.
AOL didnt give a timeline for when it would start using Ingenios pay-per-call ads.
When asked whether the new ad programs would hurt AOLs relationship with Google, Campbell said the programs are different. A Google spokesman declined to comment on the relationship.
“Theres nothing at odds here, and we will continue to sell advertising in search in addition to running ads from Google, and well make sure we have the right mix of advertiser opportunity,” Campbell said.