Battelle on AOL and Search

John Battelle’s got a great post on AOL’s new-found enthusiasm for search. The overall gist is that AOL, having decided to become more “web-like” by opening up its content to non-subscribers and basically dismantling the walls to its garden, is having a similar epiphany when it comes to search.

As one might expect, AOL has joined Yahoo in taking what might be called the “media model” of search. The media model takes a person’s query and salts the results with all manners of human edited results – mostly from content the service owns, or content that the service access from partners, or content from the web that the service edits together to create what has been called “smart search”, “search shortcuts,” “programmatic search,” and the like.

AOL is taking this to the extreme. It is, after all, a major division of a gigantic content player, and up until now, that content was locked away behind the failing access business model. No longer. AOL Search is taking the media model of search to the maximum – they have 60 full time employees creating edited “snapshots” which respond to what AOL Search chief Gerry Campbell says are 20% of all queries. That’s 2.5 million snapshots preloaded, so when you type in a popular query, you get an “answer, not just a list of results.” I imagine that number will only continue to grow. Yahoo circa 1995, anyone? This time, however, AOL only has to pre-load queries which prove out to be worth the time – the log files will tell them which ones. As will the economy. “We won’t have a smart box for a query like ‘birds of the Maldives'” Campbell told me. ” But that’s why we have Google.”

The idea of having a team of people whose sole job is to direct people to content which I can make money against is, of course, really not that new. Yahoo! already does it, the BBC has done it for a while.

What is interesting is whether or not this is going to become a pretty standard Web-monkey style job for most digital media firms who are combining search with a database of content which can be monetised. For a long time, Yahoo!’s surfers – the people who were paid to find sites and categorise them in the Y! directory – looked like an expensive anomaly paid for by the dotcom boom. Now, they’re looking like an essential component in the digital media wheel.

If there is a long-tail, and if navigation design has to simplify, and if search becomes more and more the main means of navigating digital content, then someone has to point users in appropriate directions based on their searches.