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August 12, 2006

How Valuable is the Leaked AOL Data to SEO?

By Li Evans

When AOL Data Leak story hit the press, I was out in San Jose at the Search Engine Strategies Conference. Although I was reading about it, and there was a ton of buzz around this topic, I really didn’t get down into the nitty gritty of the story while I was out there. Since I’ve been back I’ve been researching and reading. Everything I’m reading leads me to some questions that haven’t been address by any of the articles I’ve come across (a few below).

I am in total agreement with all of the articles, and with AOL, that they “screwed up”. The attempt to reach out to the research community totally backfired, and this is something that AOL is going to have to deal with for years to come. As a major brand that built its name on “trust us, we’ll protect you”, AOL has some major PR work ahead of itself. There are over 600,000 AOL users out there, who are going to be giving them a “Word of Mouth” nightmare in the very near future. 

With all of that stated, I’m left with wondering, truly, can the SEO world truly capitalize on this data? Joseph Lazlo in the Jupiter article say “It's also incredibly valuable and AOL's just given it away for free”, however he doesn’t qualify how it’s valuable and to whom. The ZD.net article states “Some researchers, however, contend the information serves a valuable purpose in helping to develop better information retrieval technology.” Perhaps in a sense this is true, but I question basing the technology on just one source like this. 

The rush to capitalize on this data, by being the first to create tools that utilize it, thereby creating link bait seems to be taking hold of all sorts of programmers and marketers alike. Of course that’s the goal of almost every search marketer – totally qualified, un-spammy links driving quality traffic to your website. However, I am left to pause and ponder the immediate SEO value of the AOL data, and thereby the true value of the tools created using it. 

The data released was from a sampling of over 600,000 users. If that sampling was coming from Google, Yahoo, or MSN, I think the SEO value would be far greater, but this sampling is coming from AOL. Yes, AOL uses Google to provide its search results, but, this is AOL user data that was released. 

Something that hasn’t been qualified by Hitwise in its Market Share reports of the search engines, is just where AOL falls into the mix. The most recent release by Hitwise CEO Bill Tancer, (Hitwise July Search Engine Market Share press release) shows that Google broke 60% of the market share, but doesn’t state if that includes AOL searches.  From that, someone can infer that it’s a portion of that 60% or someone can infer that it’s part of that “Other” at 5%. In the press release Bill Tancer specifically mentions the domains of Google, Yahoo, and MSN, which leads me to believe that AOL is falling into that “Other” category.

So if AOL is only a small portion of the "other" market space, and then you take a look at AOL’s customer base, which information/studies over the years have shown tends to lean a bit “older” age wise, and a bit more “novice” internet user wise, the possibility of clicks to results on #1 and #2 in search results can end up being highly skewed. Therefore, these two factors leave me wondering how valuable are these tools if they are basing their data results on the AOL data? How much can you REALLY infer to the TOTAL search engine marketing space with the data that AOL leaked?

In the weeks to come, I suppose the question will be answered by the Search Engines' "search engineers". Until then, I’m going to hold back my use of the new tools coming out utilizing the data from AOL. I’ll review the tools I come across for ease of use and how they are incorporating the data, with the disclosure it’s the AOL Data.

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