Project #2: Fixing AOL Search (or “we need to love our users a little more”

Update: Jim talks about my approach to solving problems and I respond.
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As everyone knows I like to point out all the good things we’re doing at AOL on my blog as often as I can. Most folks complain that I only point out the good stuff. So, in order to be credible I guess I have to be honest about the things we are doing bad.

A couple of weeks back I called out AIM Triton for being a memory hog, and I’m happy to report that there are some beta version of AIM floating around that are much, much lighter.

Not sure if we will be lighter than Yahoo IM, but we should be much closer. Also, I’m not sure if the AIM people are going to take my advice and create an AIMLight and bundle that with AIM Triton, but I’m gonna keep fighting for that (at least until I’m CEO and I can just mandate it :-). I mean, why should we lose the top 10% of our users to Trillian and other light clients??! What’s the logic in that?

Today I have to call out our search. I’ve got friends in the search group, and I know they’re working on the issues–but our search is bad. Very, very bad.

Now, it’s not the results that are bad (how could it be… we use Google results which are the best in the business!). The problem is screen real estate.

When I ask folks inside our company what search engine they use they say “Google.” I ask them why, the most common response is “because it’s cleaner.” Sometime folks says it’s faster, but I don’t think that’s the case or the reason. We basically all know that our search is filled with too many ads and too much collateral, yet we haven’t done anything about it for months.

This is a mission critical thing in my mind. We have to clean up our act and start loving our users more than Google.

If I was running Search I would make it my mission to be *better* than Google in terms of screen real estate. Of course, when you’re at a big company like ours you have numbers to hit and sometimes what’s in the best long-term interest of users is not in synch with the short-term goals of shareholder. Regardless, I take a long-term view to our business and the long term view says we are going to get a reputation for being abusive if we don’t clean up our act.

Let’s take a look at a search for iPod on Google, Yahoo, MSN, and AOLSearch.com.

Google Search: As you can see a Google search for iPod start with two small ads (in light blue) and quickly goes to the iPod page on Apple. I’ve highlighted the first organic search box in yellow and noted the number of pixels from the top (238). Google is very generous with screen real estate and is the #1 search engine in the world.

Yahoo Search: Yahoo’s iPod search has three sponsored links, is 40 pixels from the left, and the first organic result–the one people really want–is 300 pixels down the page. Yahoo is not as generous as Google and they are in second place when it comes to search share.

MSN Search: 285 pixels down, 0 pixels to the right–almost the exact same as Yahoo. MSN is in third place when it comes to search share.

AOLSearch: Ouch! First, we are pushing the search results over 198 pixels to the right so we can have a navigation box that no one really uses. Then we have our “Snapshot” module which features links to iTunes, Apple, a canned news search, and a link to our shopping section–not much value there. Next up is Sponsored Links, and we’re running three to Google’s two. After all that–538 pixels down the page–you get the first organic result. At 538 pixels, our first search result is below the fold on most monitors. This is totally insane considering that AOL users typically have smaller monitors. Bottom line: AOL is much less generous than Google, Yahoo, or MSN. We’re in fourth place in terms of search share (hhmmmmmm….).

Here is a look at the four results side-by-side (click for large version): that tells the story right there. Now, just because search share and screen real estate seems to match up perfectly doesn’t mean it is so. Clearly MSN has a lot of search because of their browser share for example, but how you present the results is *one* of the driving forces in our space.

If I was running a search engine in second, third, or forth place I would put *one* advertisement at the top and give the users (and the advertiser) the best experience out there. That’s how you win in our business: by loving the users more than your competitors do. That’s our big challenge: we (AOLers–the ones who work for the little Yellow Man) need to love our users more.

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