Redesigned AOL.com Front Page Will Feature Third-Party Content, Global Social Net Status Updates

It’s been roughly 18 months since the last major change to the entry to AOL.com. Now, after revamping its verticals and launching new products like women’s site Lemondrop, AOL is trying a new approach to its portal entry: creating an info hub for third-party email services and social nets while integrating RSS, local news and pop-out “engagement modules.”

The first phase went live tonight with an e-mail module allowing users to check on AOL, Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO), and Gmail accounts from the top right-hand of AOL.com and expanded left-hand navigation to various points within AOL (NYSE: TWX). Over the next few weeks, AOL will add an innovative global status update for major social services — write your status once and it shows up on Facebook, Bebo, MySpace, Twitter at the same time — and the ability to follow multiple social net activity through one module from AOL’s front page. Bill Wilson, AOL’s EVP of programming, walked me through the new front page.

The changes don’t stop with e-mail and social nets. Some are skin deep as AOL introduces new color schemes and a more stylish approach, swapping muted pastels for options that include black backgrounds. (Screenshot here.) It may sound purely cosmetic but it gives the portal a new look and feel even tough the basic structure remains the same. On the top left, people can add their own links. AOL Radio will get a top spot. AOL.com also will incorporate “engagement modules” or pop-up players for video, photo galleries, polls and the like that can be moved to other locations on the page to watch video while reading email or the like.

It is an insanely long page but Wilson insists that their click maps show users scroll “if you provide value in the middle of the page as well as the bottom.” Much more detail after the jump.

More on e-mail: Hovering over an e-mail service after login shows the latest messages; composing messages or viewing all mail in an account takes the user off the page. Microsoft’s (NSDQ: MSFT) Hotmail poses a problem though; it can’t be accessed or previewed through AOL.com so AOL is providing a link that can be inserted in one of the module email slots — and a link to Microsoft feedback so people can ask for the feature. In addition to being more open, AOL hopes the e-mail aggregation will help recapture some of the user attention it lost before people leaving the ISP were allowed to keep their AOL addresses. Make it possible for Yahoo e-mail users to scan their inbox from AOL.com and they may stick around.

Leveraging acquisitions Some of the new content on the front page comes from integrating AOL’s acquisitions. For instance, local news, something AOL hasn’t highlighted before, will be powered by Relegence, the financial news and info technology firm acquired by AOL in late 2006. Relegence, which pulls news and info from more than 3,000 sources, is already powering AOL’s finance, sports and entertainment coverage. Wilson says the portal avoided local news until now because news from nearby big cities tended to overwhelm the result. AOL will use Relegence to provide real-time news pegged to zip codes: “We’re really going to lean into local here.”

— An RSS reader in a module at the bottom will start default categories but can be supplemented by user choices. Recent acquisition Sphere will provide related content from the web; it was integrated quietly into AOL News last week and will be launched across AOL’s network.

Personalization not the goal: Wilson: “We’re not trying to create a replacement for myAOL or iGoogle (NSDQ: GOOG) or My Yahoo. … Based on our experience, personalized sites range usually to under 20 percent of the mainstream. If you look at My Yahoo, it does 20 million where My Yahoo does 90 millions; myAOL is roughly 8 million where our portal is about 48 million. Here, we’re trying to create an experience of great scale for the masses.” Beginning in Q109, though, the front page will start to respond to use. “If you as a user never click on finance news, we would swap that module out and provide you a different module based on things you do click on.” For instance, someone who clicks on style but not finance might get a style feed.

— The e-mail aggregator, social net module and other new features will be available eventually for myAOL.

Advertising: AOL is keeping the 300×600 display ad introduced for the Olympics and is testing placement for sponsored link ads from another acquisition, Quigo. The ads currently are integrated in various modules but the new look has them bundled together on the bottom left. “We’re constantly working with Quigo to determine the best placement for monetization but also leveraging that with the consumer experience.” The engagement modules “are all going to be highly customized from a sponsorship standpoint with rich media. We’ve been sharing that with TV networks and movie studios and some of the CPG as well as retailers.” That’s new advertising in the middle of the screen that doesn’t exist today. Will it pay off in revenue? The inventory being added should provide a boost.

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