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A Oh Hell

Ignore AOL users at your own peril. A Oh Hell Ignore AOL users at your own peril.

As a self-declared “Internet-have,” it has been my proclivity to marginalize both AOL and its users. Over the next two columns I would like to explore this ambivalence and how webmasters and designers can work to change their habits and open their sites to AOL users.

I am not alone in my anti-AOL stance. Even AOL users tend to belittle the media giant. I know an executive who has all of her business e-mail forwarded to her AOL e-mail account because she prefers to use the AOL mail client. Yet she would never search AOL for business leads and information, thinking instead that AOL is geared more to personal than business use.

Obviously AOL has evolved into much more than a personal-use Internet property. More than 10 years ago, AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy were setting the stage for the coming online boom. As self-contained worlds of user groups, chat rooms and general knowledge, entities like these were a sneak preview of the Internet we know today. AOL has since swallowed CompuServe, and Prodigy is still trying to figure out if it has a future, which leaves AOL as the 800-pound online gorilla. Recently surpassing 29 million members at roughly $20 per month, it should be no surprise that AOL was able to buy Time Warner.

Aside from crushing the competition, how did AOL do this? It made it easy for people who don’t know jack about computers or the Internet to get online, get e-mail, chat with friends and use their computer more than they ever had. While I am comfortable building computers, setting up servers, configuring routers and running cable, most people are not–and AOL has given them what they need. In fact, most AOL users have little reason to leave the AOL environment–a situation AOL prefers, as it can serve ads much better in a closed environment than an open one. Indeed, AOL 6 removed the option for users to choose their own homepage. AOL would certainly like to return to the walled garden paradigm of the early nineties, yet the urge to surf the greater Internet is great.

And surf they do. I have never seen a report on server logs where the top ISP was not AOL. And this is the area of Web development that has most frustrated developers. Webmasters know that AOL users are the top visitors to their sites, yet they feel frustrated in their ability to serve them pages that look as they should or to give them a decent online shopping experience because of the myriad design obstacles AOL throws up.

But are these problems insurmountable? Next week we’ll look at some more specific solutions to better serve AOL users as well as further explore the service that everyone loves to hate.

Garth Gillespie is architect and chief technologist of

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