Portal home pages are like the Hot Tub Time Machines of the internet; visiting one feels like going back in time. The reason that they only change rarely is that each pixel moved has a small impact on the surfing habits of a very large number of people, making changes risky and disruptive.
That's why AOL's redesign, slated to roll out starting Monday, is pretty radical as far as the legacy portals go. Video will go front and center; the familiar left-side directory gets pushed down; and right ad gets pushed up. During testing, AOL tried eliminating the directory as well as categorized news links like "entertainment," "business" and "sports," but test groups revolted, so those stayed, but moved lower.
Over the last few years, the prevailing trend has been to give users more customization tools, but in a phone call today, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong said that creates work for consumers, and AOL is taking a different tack. "The big difference between us and where everyone else is going is we don't expect them to do all the work; AOL is doing the work," he said. "Our job in this economy is to curate information for people and let them get on with their lives."
Mr. Armstrong called it "passive personalization," as opposed to the "Silicon Valley approach" that assumes consumers actually want to fiddle with settings on Yahoo or Facebook.
Another big change is in the works: AOL plans to roll out its large "Devil" ad format on the home page in the coming months, meaning advertisers will be able to own the entire right-third of the page. That's a change from a month ago when AOL said the larger-format ads would only grace secondary pages.
For AOL, this redesign has more riding on it than most. As the company sheds its legacy dial-up business, it is also shedding the core group that most consistently used AOL.com as its starting point on the internet. To grow as a content company, AOL has to appeal to the wider web without losing those who already consider it home.
AOL has also reportedly considered taking part in an effort to buy Yahoo, which Mr. Armstrong didn't confirm, but didn't exactly deny either. "Our game plan is to be open to any possibilities that make the turnaround faster or give us more opportunities to scale our strategy," he said.