America Online, while not the web powerhouse it once was, is still a high traffic site. AOL also has a substantial mobile presence at wap.aol.com. AOL Mobile includes all the features of other big portals like Yahoo, Google, and MSN - search, news, weather, sports and business - plus links to other AOL properties like Mapquest and MovieFone. I've reviewed pieces of AOL Mobile before like MapQuest, but I've never written about the overall experience. It's a big site so this review will be in two parts. This first post will cover search - AOL offers Web, Local and Shopping searches.
AOL Web Search does not search the mobile web, it returns only transcoded versions of full web PC web sites. Regular readers know how I feel about that. To summarize, transcoded PC sites provide an inferior mobile browsing experience when compared with true mobile sites. There is a place for transcoding because there's plenty of information on the desktop web that still isn't available on the mobile web, but desktop web search should not be the only kind available on a mobile portal. AOL's search uses Google's excellent index and the transcoding engine is also quite good. When I compared transcoders a year and a half ago, I gave AOL's the top rating. Time has passed and Google and Skweezer have caught up with and maybe even passed AOL. Compared with Google/Skweezer, AOL's transcoding seems slightly more likely to fail with an error. I also think Google's technique of collapsing menus does a lot for mobile usabilty. Compare the images of MSN.com transcoded by AOL (right) and Google (left) . AOL's requires much more scrolling to reach the main content
AOL Local Search seems very slow. A search for "sushi" in 94103 was slow on my phone so I tried it using a PC with a DSL connection and it was still frustrating slow. Too bad, as it has some nice features like user ratings, "click to call" and Mapquest maps and driving directions. AOL also tells you how far you are from each restaurant or store but the results aren't sorted by distance. They aren't sorted by rating either. I did notice that sites with ads tend to be clustered near the top of the results. There are both text ads inline with the results and "View Ad" Links which lead to what appear to be full size image ads designed for desktop sites that have been scaled down for mobile. The resizing generally makes any text in the ads unreadable.
Shopping Search looks great with all sorts of features that I haven't seen before in a mobile shopping site. This is a web shopping search rather than a local one. It's similar to AOL.com's desktop shopping site or Pricegrabber.com with product ratings and reviews as well as store ratings. Comparing AOL's mobile and desktop shopping search results pages, it looks like the mobile site is driven by the same content management system as the desktop one. Reviews and product information are the same and images on the mobile site are rescaled versions of the desktop site's images. This works well and results in a very content rich shopping site. The only negative point about AOL's mobile shopping site is that you can't actually buy anything. In fact it's hard to tell exactly which online merchant is offering a given product as only site names and not URL's are listed. Still it's a good site for research and checking to see how prices in brick and mortar stores compare with online sources.
Overall, I find AOL's mobile search not up to the standards set by the Big Three. A little more attention to server response time and to details like sorting local search results by distance is all it would take to make AOL very competitive in the local search area. The shopping search is AOL's best search feature, although it needs the ability to make purchases (which Amazon mobile has long had) to be complete.