Believe it or not, AOL updated their homepage to allow third-party authentication into their e-mail competitors. I chalk this up to a last-ditch attempt to appeal to their users so they don’t change their homepage away from AOL. However, despite this, most of the features in this change go well above and beyond the technical competency of AOL users, which begs the question of “Why?”
Most AOL users wouldn’t know a Message Board from a Blog or a Chat Room. Let me reiterate that before I head into another critical entry on the New York based Internet media empire (or once was). A successful homepage is one that engages users with useful widgets and interesting content — not one or the other, but both.
It’s typical that once a year, large homepage portals update and refresh their homepages for their users in an attempt to keep the feeling “fresh” and the content “edgy.” Web portal rival, Yahoo, has only changed minimal stylings, themes and that’s about it on their page.
Despite claims that homepage changes are geared for consumers; the real customer is the advertiser since most homepage updates are monetized via larger, bulkier, uglier advertising spots. AOL, unlike Google, chooses to monetize about 40% of their entire homepage with “sponsored links” and chunky graphic ads. (Not to mention tasteless and offensive editorial; but thats a different topic.)
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”
— What approximately 400 AOLers said when AOL debuted their Yahoo-like homepage at a quarterly conference.
The last (and probably the last) homepage update that AOL made was a shocking one. AOL went against the grain, went against all sense of innovation and creativity and built a page that functioned exactly like Yahoo, even down to the same CSS Sprites. The only difference was the logo and the ad size (AOL’s ads are naturally bigger). The justification for “aligning” to Yahoo was that Yahoo set the standard for homepages. I disagree.
Clearly, the powers that be (ahem, Bill Wilson) was wrong because AOL orginally debuted the first homepage in their Channels and later the Welcome Screen — but they forgot about that, their roots. As expected after this homepage launch, employee morale sunk as they drudged on toward their days until they received their navy blue folder with COBRA and outplacement services inside.
AOL’s recent homepage revision only reflects the sheer lack of innovation, technical talent and creativity that has left the door. In fact, Sanjay Naynar was kind enough to break the news on the AOL Portal Blog (you know, that advertorial blog for AOL); I’ll let you make the conclusion on project management and overall leadership when “Sanjay” runs the most trafficked Web destination of the company. I digress.
For a company that knows their users like their experience to be simple; the homepage is getting awfully full and busy. This will only mean one thing: people will eventually learn how to change their homepage and will set it for a superior Web destination.
What AOL needs to do, if they expect to be around in the next five years or so; they must educate their users and bring them up to parity with common knowledge on the Internet. They must tone down the amount of ads and make use of whitespace so users can visually navigate pages the way designers intended. They must reward talent and and keep their employees engaged and checking the pulse of users. Failure to do so will result in CPMs to drop, users to leave and employees’ morale to continue to plummet. Ultimately, failure.
I won’t include a screenshot of the AOL.com page or bother linking to it. If you want to check it out, just go there and be disgusted and nauseated. Instead, check out Saul Hansel’s NYTimes blog entry calling out to who uses AOL and why; it’s a nice entry. My reply: AOLers stick because they are trained to be ignorant and not venture far from the nest. We can thank AOL Programming (Bill Wilson) and AOL News (Lewis Dvorkin, but he left already) for keeping users as blind as they are to the Internet.