Web searches are now at the forefront of AOL's strategy, with the company laying plans to improve and expand its services and move into personalised search.
A few years ago, AOL considered search important but not critical, but the company now sees it as a priority. "Search is a gigantic part of the company's focus," said Gerry Campbell, vice-president and general manager of AOL Search. "There's lots more to come."
The big goal is personalisation, or giving users the capability to customise their search activities, save queries and manage, manipulate and store results. Cambell said competitors such as Yahoo, A9 and Ask Jeeves had made strong moves in personal search recently, and that users could expect AOL to follow suit "in a few months".
But he said the company still doubted whether personalising search was any more than hype. "It's definitely interesting and we're charging after it even though it remains to be proven whether it's actually useful."
AOL is also looking to extend search towards its AIM instant messaging service. "We're leaders in the instant messaging market and there should be some significant offerings there," he said. Further integration of the multimedia search capabilities acquired when AOL bought Singingfish last year is also on the cards.
And with Yahoo and Google making moves into wireless search, AOL is determined not to be left behind. "We don't have anything out in the wireless search market yet, but that belies the amount of concentration we have on it as a company," Campbell said.
While the technical capabilities to tap search engines via a mobile device have existed since the late 1990s, Campbell sees the problem as lack of consumer demand. "What's going to crack it is someone coming up with a completely new and fantastic experience that people can't live without. There's an opportunity to create the wireless killer app when it comes to looking for information."
Campbell said AOL was happy with using Google's search technology to power AOL web searches, and that the company didn't want to duplicate what Google did so well already. But he pointed out that AOL was continually improving and expanding its own search technologies.
AOL's search efforts apply both to its fee-based online service and its free websites, although the company generally offers more search content within its fee-based service. AOL offers local, multimedia, image, news and product search, and has a desktop search product in beta.
"At AOL, search is now called the perfect business," said Campbell. "When members find what they're looking for, they're happy, and most of the time they're looking for things that can be monetised. There's a tremendous focus on this company at doing this."
Juan Carlos Perez writes for IDG News Service