AOL Buys HuffPost: SMO Just Got Messier (III)

First of all massive amendment to this post, which I serendipitously wrote Saturday: AOL has bought the Huffington Post for $315 million, and wants to become a community blogging site. This means the entire social idea is thrown wide open as AOL is indeed in the running again to be the ultimate social portal, up against Google, Facebook, Rockmelt, Hootsuite…damn I love a good fight.

It’s about the fight for our desktops. As Google’s Chromium how-to video demonstrates, the browsers are becoming our main use for our computers, when even word processing and photo edits happen online. The browser also defines your homepage, especially when it’s social. With social aggregator/browsers like Rockmelt, Flock and Hootsuite, your social media is the first “site” you visit, and the browser and networks you link into define your experience, just as Safari does Apple and AOL attempted with content creation (farming) and Lifestream.*

AOL Home Page

So what happens when we go back to the internet infancy of AOL? Well traditional banner ads have been replaced by obnoxious flash ads which blow up across your browser. They are supposed to be more dynamic and entertaining: No. AIM is the central social networking platform still which means your friends need to be using it. The search browser is mostly abandoned and no respectable SEOer targets AOL. (Google, Bing, Yahoo, in that order.) The page is filled with content AOL wants you to click on when you open the browser to take you to pages with ads targeting that content. Example “Best SUVs 2011” with an ad for Ford Tahoe.

One thing AOL did seem to get right was their radio. It’s like Pandora but with related articles on music. I have to say I have a friend who does this, so I may be biast…but then I haven’t really listened to it in months. While I love integrating music with anything, (yeah MySpace), the sharing posts the station to your social networks, not the individual song so you still need Blip or Grooveshark to post song links to Twitter.

AOL did try a more integrated social model: Lifestream is a social aggregator which AOL was repping at internet week.

Lifestream supposedly took the AIM experience and integrated it with photo-sharing and other social networks. AIM is really past it’s prime with Windows being used as a chat at many corporations and MSN in China, the separate chat is a saturated market. Instead LinkedIn, Yahoo, GChat, Twitter and Facebook contacts are dominating because they have built in contact lists which go beyond quirky screen names. AOL tried to work backwards, creating the social aggregator before they had the contact list. AOL usually has the right idea, wrong execution.

Thanks to RSS feeds and bookmarking integrated into the browser, everything about who you are, what you like and what you get to see is fed back to the company. It has huge implications for ad dollars based on site traffic, but it also has broader implications for every social sharing and real content generator which appears in your feed; And every company who wishes to appear there.

For example, see how advertising versus Foursquare appears on Rockmelt, Flock and a traditional search homepage:

Rockmelt with a Facebook Stream

In the righthand on Rockmelt you can see the various feeds there are to choose from: News, blogs, Facebook, Twitter. When you click on them a feed opens up. Since you never ever have to go to the Facebook homepage (except to look at pictures, etc), you are never subjected to ads. This means the “Likes” and “Check-ins” are the only advertising these networks or the browser pushes to you. In addition, these are “endorsements” from your connections: People you trust.

Flock Playing Pandora with a Twitter Stream

The stream looks similar on Flock, but the chat isn’t there in the lefthand. Unlike Rockmelt, there’s no pop-up window if you click on someone’s stream, but individual messages like email can be sent when you click on a connection’s picture. There are again no ads because you don’t have to go to the social network page to see someone’s info. This means “Likes” and “Check-ins” are again the only endorsements you see. What makes Flock preferable for me is it has LinkedIn and options to display only “Facebook photos” or “Twitter Mentions” in your feed, mixing the two into one priority feed. You can also specialize feeds by “best friends”.

So why a blogging platform? Five reasons off the top of my head:
1. Content creation to keep people coming to the site, and hopefully make AOL your homepage.
2. Another revenue stream for AOL’s advertising business.
3. Other search engines will redirect traffic from searches to AOL sites now: They own TechCrunch and a couple others.
4. Another datasource as HuffPost requires log-ins to post comments on their site.
5. Arianna Huffington herself: She’s the queen of getting traffic to a site, even though Huffington Post articles push the “journalism” label, and pander, her ability to give the people what they want is more valuable, (I think), to AOL than the site itself. She might be what it takes to make AOL relevant again.


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