Ever since AOL altered its subscription service two years back with an ad-based model, the web veteran is now further letting its doors open in an effort to win back some of the customers by introducing a new feature on its revamped homepage that allows users to access multiple email services from third parties.
Dwindling far behind competitors such as Google, Yahoo and, to a smaller degree, Microsoft’s MSN, AOL -- a division of media giant Time Warner has launched a host of new services and content initiatives in a bid to close the gap in the online advertising game.
It now offers new e-mail aggregation feature to drive more traffic through its network, for example, users can now access multiple e-mail services, including Google’s Gmail, Yahoo mail and MSN’s Hotmail or other e-mail accounts, all without leaving AOL.com.
Even more dramatic plans are ahead for AOL.com, including new features that allow more control over content on AOL.com, which will ultimately drive up both Web traffic and online advertising revenue.
The company on Wednesday announced that it is renovating the site to offer increased choice and customization. The site will debut various features over the next several weeks. The features will allow users to add their own links to the main navigation bar and access custom feeds from social networking sites, news sources, and other Web sites.
AOL mentioned the plan symbolizes its first step in opening the site to third parties.
“With the launch of mail aggregation, AOL will be the first among the big traditional portals to offer a centralized e-mail experience,” Bill Wilson, executive VP of programming at AOL, said in a statement.
Moreover, the mail preview panel gives users the status of their AOL, Gmail and Yahoo accounts, so users can see new messages as they arrive. Users can navigate directly to new messages by clicking on the message link. Users can also click a link to launch a window to compose a message.
"We know that consumers today have multiple e-mail accounts on different services to keep tabs on daily, and we want to make it easier for them. This is an important first step in opening up AOL.com and giving users the ability to populate the AOL.com homepage with content and services they use on a daily basis, regardless of where it lives.”
“This is an important first step in opening up AOL.com and giving users the ability to populate the AOL.com homepage with content and services they use on a daily basis,” Wilson said.
The modification marks a change in the way AOL wants its users to interact with its homepage, which -- according to comScore -- currently attracts 105 million users a month globally. The move also makes AOL the first of the high profile web portals to give its competitors space on its site; Yahoo! and MSN, for instance, are unlikely to spare inches for the likes of Google on their homepages.
The changes are expected to appear on AOL.com today. According to TechCrunch, additional features -- including personalized bookmarks, social networking access and an RSS reader -- will be added in October.
Presently, Mail Preview Panels allow users to see if they have new messages on their AOL, Gmail, and Yahoo accounts, as the mail arrives. Users can right away click on and read messages in all accounts, and AOL now provides a link for each mail provider so users can open a window for composing messages with one click.
Additions in future will include a “keyhole” view of social networks, which allows users to handle all their social networking feeds from the site, a customizable RSS feed reader, and freedom to add a link to any Web page to the main navigation bar. The ability to view social networks is likely to cause a particular stir -- not just because third party networks like Facebook and MySpace will be incorporated, but because it will mark AOL’s first real integration of Bebo on its homepage, after it acquired the popular site for $850 million in March this year.
“For a portal to be relevant to consumers today, it has to recognize that users seek a variety of different experiences and connections with their various networks and information sources,” Wilson said. “AOL is embracing this with the new AOL.com, becoming the first truly open portal experience offered by one of the big traditional portals.”
The announcement of a new and improved AOL.com comes at a time when the company’s future appears to be in doubt. In August, various news agencies carried reports that the portal could be on the verge of a split from its parent company, Time Warner, who appeared keen to sell the company’s advertising and content business for just $10 billion.
“The general objective that Time Warner has for AOL is for it to be as broadly attractive to consumers as possible,” David Joyce, an equity analyst with Miller Tabak & Co., said in a statement. “They are trying to sell advertising now, not dial-up subscriptions. The more they can latch onto other areas where consumers go online, the better chance they have for click-throughs and unique user metrics they can sell advertising around.”
The move to revamp the AOL Web site is the latest in a series of initiatives taken by the company to separate its content and online ad business from its flagging dial-up Internet access business, Joyce said.
The comparatively low valuation is of no real surprise to industry commentators. The Wall Street Journal, for example, reports that AOL’s ad growth has stalled this year, when compared to the online advertising market as a whole.
“The two businesses are pretty much fully separated at this point, operationally and financially,” he noted. “It is the hope of investors that Time Warner sells off the access business or merges it with EarthLink’s.”
Though AOL dominated the Internet in terms of Web traffic and subscribers earlier this decade, it was late to the broadband access segment. Many of its current challenges are a result of missing the broadband opportunity, Joyce said.
AOL was the Google of its time, but its fall from dominance has left it with a stigma that has proven to be difficult to overcome. AOL is no longer perceived as being the vital force that Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and even Facebook have become on the Web, Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, said.
With the launching of improved e-mail aggregation feature, AOL’s quest is more a matter of survival in an industry that largely regards it as a historical object of a bygone digital age.