Brand Name to Brand X, Y and Z

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007

AOL has begun flooding the Web with dozens of new and updated products, many of which do not even bear its famous name, in an attempt to expand its network and reach people wherever they may be.

With a partner, it runs edgy celebrity gossip site TMZ. It recently started Bluestring, a site that scours the Internet for one's photos, videos and music and stores them in one place online. And it has unveiled a video search engine called Truveo used by Microsoft's Web sites, the technology portal CNet and others.

These sites and services and many others are part of an overhaul of AOL's vast online empire, a largely overlooked yet key element of the Internet giant's transformation into an advertising company. The products represent the company's attempt to capture a larger share of the online audience in a heated contest with traditional rivals Google, Yahoo and MSN, as well as newcomers such as Facebook.

In this new world, the AOL brand is no longer as important as it once was.

"You want to be there whether you're branded or not," said Kevin Conroy, executive vice president for products at AOL.

AOL has steadily abandoned its roots as a provider of dial-up Internet access that hoarded much of its proprietary content behind a subscriber wall. Now AOL is looking to feature its products on the sites of rivals and open its portal and other properties to outsiders. With these efforts, the company is trying to build on the earlier success of such stand-alone siblings as Moviefone, MapQuest and Winamp, an iTunes forerunner. The AIM instant message system has long dominated the market.

But the collective audience for AOL sites has not grown recently. Since August 2006, the number of users visiting AOL sites monthly has declined slightly and now is about 111 million, according to ComScore Media Metrix.

Analysts say future growth depends on attracting eyeballs from elsewhere online.

"When it comes down to these products, Google's making strides, Yahoo's making strides. AOL has fallen into the background," said Sarah Cohen, an analyst with Forrester Research. "As consumers become more comfortable with the Internet and learn about their options, they stray from AOL. AOL is now in a place where they need to win back consumers."

AOL executives say their new products attempt to capitalize on an Internet that is rapidly becoming a mix of feeds, blogs, widgets, profile pages, user-created content and other elements that are collectively regarded as Web 2.0.

"It's really about getting a piece of the usage," said Conroy, who is leading the new strategy from his office in Dulles. "You don't just steal someone from that environment and say, 'Come here.' You want to be part of the social fabric."

With its headquarters moving from Dulles to New York and its recent acquisitions of several online ad companies, AOL has received plenty of attention for its plans to become an Internet advertising company. AOL claims its ad network, known as Platform A, offers more opportunities to serve ads on the Web than any other company. And it says the new approach will be key to reversing the company's public, painful decline as users have migrated away from its access business.

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