Can AOL Make a Comeback?

The New York Times reports AOL, in its spinoff from its "disasterous" acquisition of Time Warner, is making significant changes and planning for a comeback.

Could it work? I'm one the few who still use AOL for e-mail. I started in 1996 and old habits die hard. While I also use gmail and prefer that for my law practice, I think AOL has some advantages for personal and blog-related e-mail. I'm not talking about the internet version but the version you install on your computer. (You can download it from their home page.) The installed version loads quicker and requires fewer clicks for mass actions -- like deleting mail with one click, without having to click a checkbox next to the items before you delete it.

One of AOL's new features is, get this, reduced ads on its site. [More...]

pulling back some ads -- a step that reduced clutter on AOL pages and made them load faster -- showed that consumers were the company's first priority, given that the move could sacrifice some revenue.

''We are on a long journey and sometimes you do have to make short-term trade-offs for that long-term gain,'' said AOL's new head of advertising, Jeff Levick.

I think that's a big deal. I immediately log off a news site when I click on an article and an ad comes up requiring me to click "skip this ad and go directly to article." I also won't return to sites that have audio clips that are set to play automatically and you have to search for the mute button while it blares through the speakers.

In the old days (five years ago)it was easy enough to say "just delete it" about unwanted mail and ads. But when you're online all day, checking dozens of news sites and getting 300 plus emails a day, every click adds up and combined, they are a big and wasted expenditure of time.

I've also noticed that AOL news has gotten better and they do a good job of presenting the top five or so stories in all categories without having them take up half a page. They also use images effectively and have a layout that mostly lets you take in what's going on in one glance without having to move your eyes left and right or up and down. Their mass spam deletion is also top notch (although gmail is also excellent at this.)

I hope AOL makes it. I could probably come up with a dozen more reasons why and a dozen suggestions for them going forward, but they might have to make me their 7,001th employee to get me to actually sit down and do it.

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    One thing they might do (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by gyrfalcon on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 08:34:28 AM EST
    is explain how their system works on the home page.  I've never used it, and it sounds like it's changed a good bit over the years, so just out of curiosity, I clicked on "Get free email" on the main site and got a registration page without a single word of explanation about what precisely I would "get" if I signed up.

    I remember a story that after the merger, all the Time-Warner news people and everybody else were required to use AOL for their email and Web access, and it made the news people so crazy that they ended up paying out of their own pockets to subscribe to outside ISPs.

    Given the terrible reputation AOL has always had among more computer-savvy users over the years, they  need to have some explanations and even promotion on their main site if they have any hope of increasing their user base.

    How does this work these days?  Do you no longer have to go to the AOL Web site to get your email? Do you still have to fight the system to get to non-AOL content?

    I see your point (none / 0) (#12)
    by eric on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 10:23:26 AM EST
    What, exactly, does AOL offer?  Looking at the website just now, it appears to be a Yahoo type company now.  Free email, a news page, searches, etc.  I suppose they still sell dial-up, but I don't think there is much of a market for that anymore.

    So then it comes down to competing with Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft for ads, searches, webmail.  It is going to be tough because of the bad reputation AOL has.


    AOL (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by Carolyn in Baltimore on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 10:08:21 AM EST
    AOL has always sucked if you had a clue what you were doing. They carved an incredible niche getting newbies comfortable with the internet. Unfortunately as the web evolved to be friendlier, AOL did not, or didn't enough.
    Now I giggle at the few friends who still use their AOL addresses. That would be one friend. Who is very PC savvy herself. So I don't understand.

    I'm not sure what AOL would need to do to save the internet side of their business. Between MS, Mac, Ubuntu and the future Google OS there is not a lot of room. Browsers are still evolving but not much space there either for a has-been to rebrand, even if they can get the tech right. Netbook tech is interesting and they could build on AIM. But AOL has never replaced their original model with a solid one that can bring revenues like the original.

    They have TW  - and what?

    AOL fraud (5.00 / 2) (#13)
    by gyrfalcon on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 10:58:17 AM EST
    I always thought they should be sued for fraud because their advertising was based on making the Internet easy for folks who weren't comfortable with computers, and in reality, using AOL made it much, much harder to use the Internet.  Their whole business model seemed to be based on sucking naive and fearful people in and then holding them captive within AOL world because it was too hard to get out, especially for the computer-phobic folks they directed their advertising to.

    But that was a while ago, and although I know it's changed, I don't know how much and how.  I have several otherwise very bright friends who still cling to AOL, but their understanding of how the Internet works is so crippled by AOL blinders, it's pretty much impossible to find out from them how it works.  And professionally, contacts with an AOL address start off with a couple of strikes against them in my book, and many other people's, just on the basis of judgment and general awareness.


    That reminds me.... (5.00 / 1) (#16)
    by Inspector Gadget on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 11:10:17 AM EST
    Oprah and many other sites went AOL exclusive...you couldn't get to those sites unless you were an AOL paid subscriber. I still don't go to sites that started out that way.

    Additionally, installing AOL embeds junk (5.00 / 2) (#19)
    by DFLer on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 12:14:05 PM EST
    deep into your computer, and is a real pain to remove completely, or at least it used to be a couple of years ago.

    Well heck (5.00 / 2) (#21)
    by Steve M on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 12:49:16 PM EST
    Who says they weren't sued for fraud?  I personally filed a class action against them for AOL 5.0.  Icky business model, that's for sure.

    AOL (5.00 / 2) (#22)
    by CST on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 02:15:49 PM EST
    I have an account because I lived abroad with a family who had aol.

    I now use that e-mail solely for giving to people I never want to hear from again.  Usually companies that force you to give an e-mail address to get something.  It's my official junk mail address.  I check it about once a year, or when I know something important is coming (confirmation of flight, etc...)

    From my year of forced AOL I must say it is pretty terrible.


    Personally (5.00 / 1) (#20)
    by MrConservative on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 12:29:40 PM EST
    I use GMail and the Mozilla Thunderbird E-Mail client.  I imagine it is probably more feature rich than the AOL client you had, but it requires a bit of technical know-how to set up (but Thunderbird does come with guides on how to do it).

    Many people swear by Firefox with ... (none / 0) (#2)
    by cymro on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 02:21:59 AM EST
    ... the Adblock plugin. Note the 49.6 million downloads.

    I love it (none / 0) (#5)
    by Coral on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 08:20:20 AM EST
    I don't mind seeing ads that are plain text. But anything that moves or makes noise or imposes obnoxious images or distracting colors are incredibly annoying. I don't visit pages where I can't block those out.

    AOL Acquired Time Warner (none / 0) (#3)
    by BDB on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 05:51:54 AM EST
    not the other way around.  Yes, it seemed crazy then, too.

    Ah, the internet bubble of the 1990s.  Good times.

    thanks (none / 0) (#10)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 09:50:35 AM EST
    I changed the post to reflect that. I just assumed it was the other way around.

    Earthlink has been good to me. (none / 0) (#4)
    by Fabian on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 06:51:42 AM EST
    Especially the spamblocker!

    More ads than I used to have, but I ignore them.  The news blurbs are often cringe worthy - half of them are gossip du jour.

    Perhaps I need to check out all of my options - I've ignored the past two updates, there's probably a way to customize all of the garbage out of my way.

    AOL doesn't work with new programs (none / 0) (#7)
    by lilybart on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 08:46:34 AM EST
    My husband who used to work at AOL still uses the email and then he tries to do work in the AOL environment, which is always problematic.

    AOL front screen is a tabloid and it is stuck in a timewarp.

    Nope, no one can save AOL.

    Very Right Wing (none / 0) (#14)
    by squeaky on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 11:01:07 AM EST
    A friend (he still has it) occasionally shows me the voting on stories and it is a super wingnut crowd who form the base of subscribers, or voters..

    Bad habits die hard, that is the only reason people still use AOL, imo.

    AOL had its day (none / 0) (#15)
    by Inspector Gadget on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 11:06:52 AM EST
    I remember back in the late 90's while on a medical leave AOL had a huge discussion board for its members. Court TV was big, and the Nanny trial was going on.

    That's where I first became acquainted with who Jeralyn was, as she participated in those discussions in addition to appearing on MSNBC (Geraldo, mainly, as I recall) to discuss the case.

    Unfortunately, AOL became obsolete in many ways. One day the discussion boards just disappeared (or moved to a place where I couldn't find them), it was almost impossible to send attachments or photos between AOL and other providers, and they were email content police. A friend of mine got banned from AOL when her teenage son sent a link to a site the receivers mom took exception to and reported the kid. I also once heard they kept every email ever sent through their service.

    I keep a free email address with them just for photo exchanges with friends who use AOL only, but I'll never return to them as my primary.

    actually, I didn't participate (none / 0) (#18)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 11:39:13 AM EST
    in online discussions. I just talked about the cases on the cable news shows as a legal analyst. I'm sure people wrote about what I said on the boards though. (Just clarifying!)

    Much of the AOL hostility is kind of a (none / 0) (#17)
    by jimakaPPJ on Mon Jul 20, 2009 at 11:10:21 AM EST
    "PC" thing, I've used it since '96 and have no problems...