More news is filtering through about AOL's re-design. AOL is probably second behind Yahoo in terms of the number of users it has, although it's far behind Yahoo in terms of marketing itself as a media company. If you look at AOL.com's homepage right now, for example, you'll see it still largely promotes itself as an ISP (Internet Service Provider). The title tag of the homepage states: "AOL.com: AOL Dial-Up Internet Service Provider with TopSpeed, Add AOL for Broadband to ANY High Speed Internet Connection".
However AOL is now making an effort to re-brand itself as a Yahoo-like portal. BetaNews reports that AOL is going to offer "free Web mail, exclusive audio and video content, and access to a number of AOL services previously available only to subscribers." It'll also introduce RSS feeds to the mix. The new "MyAOL" portal will be in beta shortly and will go live end of July, according to BetaNews. A few things caught my eye in this...
1) AOL will have a feature called "LiveWeb" which will involve AOL editors searching the blogosphere "for hot topics" and they will "link interesting content directly from AOL.com."
Now this is interesting... there's a chance for bloggers who write niche and original content to get some serious coverage on the Web. Who wouldn't want to be featured content on the AOL (or Yahoo for that matter) homepage? Think: Slashdotting times 10! I really hope AOL go through with this and post quality blog content on their homepage, rather than the usual AP or Reuters stuff.
2) The second thing that caught my attention was the introduction of RSS. From BetaNews:
"My AOL begins as a "blank slate" that can be populated with content from RSS feeds in an attempt to bring order to "the chaos of the Web." To this end, AOL has partnered up with Feedster, a search engine for RSS feeds, to create an RSS aggregator that is topic driven. Users can initially select "RSS samplers" that contain a number of different content sources."
An RSS Aggregator that is topic-driven? Hey, that's one of my obsessions! In January I wrote a post entitled Why Topic/Tag/Remix Feeds Are The Future of RSS. I think this extract from my post bears repeating:
"The killer app for RSS probably won't be geared towards the current ranks of bloggers and geeks. When RSS hits it big, it'll be because 'normal' people start using it - your Mom and Dad, Frank from Marketing, Jessie from Payroll, Dave from the local dairy. They won't be bloggers. They won't be interested in writing or podcasting or anything like that. All they'll want to do is track news and trends that are relevant to them."
So if I put two and two together, it actually seems like AOL will try to deliver on that vision. Or am I too optimistic? What's certain is that AOL.com will be an RSS Aggregator for "normal people" (my phrase). I think AOL is heading in the right direction, at least.
And going back to the blogger/publisher point of view, it's also promising that they plan to feature "a number of different content sources" in its "RSS Samplers" - which I assume are pre-packaged groups of topic-focused feeds. Not dissimilar to what Rojo does - they have pre-packaged sets of feeds which new users can subscribe to using a Wizard. e.g. Rojo has a group called "Technology Bloggers" which includes A-Listers like Dave Winer, Robert Scoble, Jon Udell, et al. And that I suppose is the worry - that only so-called A-List bloggers get included in these 'topic sets'.
3) Finally, Greg Linden pointed out how similar the current My AOL draft looks to Microsoft's start.com. Take a look at the screenshot. I have to agree - and it's a pretty disappointing design, to be frank. I'll give AOL the benefit of the doubt and assume this is a very early prototype, much like start.com.
But if they're going to compete with Yahoo, which is far and away the top Web portal for media, then AOL will need to come up with some innovative design features - e.g. how to layout the topic-focused groups of RSS feeds, how to add interactive media elements to the mix (audio, video), how to promote quality 'small media' content that has been hand-picked by their editors, etc. There are a lot of design issues to be sorted out if AOL is going to realise its vision to be an RSS and new media portal.