AOL 'Spheres' Contextual Search Provider

Another Internet company gets pulled into AOL's hungry maw.

AOL, in an effort to fortify its case to be a key Internet and online advertising player, agreed to buy contextual search software maker Sphere Source April 15 for an undisclosed sum.

Sphere helps customers make connections between content from blogs, video, media, photos and advertisements. The contextual results are displayed in a widget, which publishers use to add related articles and blog posts from the Web to augment their articles.

Sphere is no stranger to AOL, which uses the startup's widget technology on AOL News and the myAOL service, Mgnet.

Sphere will also help AOL distribute its content across Sphere's third-party publisher network and will provide AOL access to advertising inventory across Sphere's network, while growing its reach to content publishers via the widget.

That's a broad base to tap for AOL, which is yearning for more ad revenue on the Web to better compete with Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. Sphere's third-party network includes more than 50,000 content publishers and blogs. Through these partners, Sphere is live on more than 2 billion article pages across the Web every month.

Connecting Publishers, Bloggers, Content Providers

Such a service has proven popular in an era dominated by user-generated content proliferating across YouTube, digg, and other social-oriented sites.

Sphere CEO Tony Conrad noted the success of Sphere coincided with publishers beginning to link to content outside their site, as well as exploring ways to connect to the blogosphere.

"By virtue of our starting point, [we] set out to be a vehicle to enable the individual voice to join the conversation as well as expose their voice to a broader audience of readers," Conrad wrote in an April 15 blog post.

"The benefit of joining the Sphere is straightforward: publishers/bloggers who successfully promote distribution of their content and that of others will be in a position to derive more value (aka ... make more money, gain more influence, etc.) from media distribution."

Indeed, while many publishers have embraced linking to content, Conrad said there is more work to be done to help media publishers get the proper exposure and make money from it.

Sphere will operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of AOL as part of the New York company's programming division, led by Executive Vice President Bill Wilson, who told TechCrunch that he will not change Sphere's focus.

Sphere is AOL's first purchase since it bid for U.K.-based social network powerhouse Bebo March 13.

Prior to that, AOL acquired a slew of ad-oriented companies to round out Platform-A, including third-party ad network, behavioral targeting leader Tacoda, mobile advertising specialist Third Screen Media, video ad platform Lightningcast and global ad server Adtech AG.

In other search-related news from AOL, the company April 15 launched a version of AOL Mobile Search created specifically for the iPhone. The release comes after AOL previewed the product at the CTIA show earlier this month.

iPhone and iPod Touch users can access the beta version of AOL Mobile Search here from their device.