AOL is now letting anyone test drive the latest version of its search engine, which saw a significant usage drop last month, apparently caused by the release of user records and an ensuing privacy scandal.
AOL's revamped search engine, which is in beta, or test, mode, is being designed with broadband users in mind and can be found at http://preview.search.aol.com, the Web portal and Internet access provider said Wednesday.
This version is operational but still under construction. When finished, it will mix, in a single results page, links to different types of files, like Web pages, photos, business listings and videos. It will also have tools for people to refine queries and fine-tune results.
But if the latest search engine usage report from Nielsen/NetRatings is any indication, AOL needs to focus not only on new features but also on regaining people's confidence.
Last month, people in the U.S. ran 18.2 percent fewer queries on AOL's search engine, compared with August 2005, Nielsen/NetRatings announced Tuesday. That landed AOL in fourth place with 5.5 percent of queries, or about 329 million.
Among the top five providers, AOL was the only one whose usage share shrunk in August. AOL also experienced a drop in July, but it was smaller at 7.8 percent.
The larger drop coincides with the privacy scandal that erupted in early August over AOL's release of about 20 million search records from about 658,000 of its members. This prompted outcry from privacy advocates and a public apology from AOL.
"It would have been very surprising not to see a significant drop in the usage of AOL's search engine," said Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit organization that advocates for protecting civil liberties in technology contexts, such as computing and the Internet.
However, Eckersley warned that avoiding AOL's search engine may give people a false sense of security, since most search engines, including all major ones, collect and store users' data.
As long as search engines continue storing this data, the possibility exists for it to be misused or compromised, he said. The U.S. Congress should enact laws to regulate search engines' data collection and protect users' privacy, he said.
In the meantime, people can take steps to protect the privacy of their search-engine activities. The EFF detailed some of those steps in a white paper released last week, which is available here.
In August, the EFF chided AOL for the privacy breach and filed a complaint against the company with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The search records, covering the three-month period between March and May, didn't include member names, but AOL tagged each person's records with a unique number. This made it possible to see what each individual searched for.
The data included search queries, as well as Web sites the members clicked on to. The queries contain all sorts of sensitive information, like credit card, telephone and Social Security numbers, as well as birth dates, full names and addresses.
According to Nielsen/NetRatings, Google finished first with a little over half of all queries, or about 3 billion. Google's query volume grew 30 percent compared with August 2005. Yahoo came in second with 24 percent of all queries. Its query volume grew 23 percent.
Microsoft's MSN fielded 10 percent of all queries, and its query volume grew 3 percent. Finally, IAC/InterActiveCorp's Ask.com finished in fifth place with a 2.3 percent share. Its query volume grew 30 percent.
A Nielsen/NetRatings analyst wasn't immediately available to comment on this latest report.