Remember AOL Keywords?

How many of you remember watching TV about a decade ago, and seeing commercials for large, well-known companies (and I mean really large ones—say, for example, Proctor & Gamble) and hearing “visit us on the world wide web at www.tidedetergent.com, or type in AOL Keyword: ‘laundry‘”?

I was thinking about this the other day… AOL was way ahead of the curve on this. They were so far ahead of the curve that it didn’t catch on. I know some people just slightly younger than me might say “AOL? Who’s that?” But the fact is, AOL was really a cutting-edge company in the dot-com era. I suppose in one sense, you can’t even call them a dot-com company, cause they provided the framework for the dot-coms without really being one themselves. (Plus they’re still around!) In a way, they actually ushered in the internet age, and survived. Funny thought.

But here’s what I’ve been thinking about… keywords were an idea so brilliant, we just accept them as a fact of life today. But at the time, AOL was the only one even thinking like that. I never knew what their policy was on how they assigned different keywords to different companies [does anyone know? was it auction-style? or just first-come-first-serve?], but I do know that they were attempting to make our online search efforts easier by coming up with simple, streamlined, logical one or two-word keywords that we could type into a special box in the AOL browser and, Voila! We would end up at exactly the most logical website for that type of word.

The idea is pretty simple. I really don’t know why this didn’t take off for AOL, especially because they seemed to abandon it, and Google showed up a few years later and took the concept and ran with it and it became a huge success. It was like some sort of proto-AdWords. Perhaps it’s because:

A) AOL didn’t know what they had on their hands

B) it was at such an infantile stage that it wasn’t really ready for the masses yet

C) AOL didn’t really know what to do with it.

Actually, in all honesty, I think it’s:

D) “all the above.” (That’s usually the right answer anyway). That seems to be the biggest challenges for large corporations—they can come up with some pretty amazing stuff, but just cannot seem to adapt fast enough to stay cutting edge.

What are your thoughts? Did anyone ever actually type in an AOL keyword into the special box at the top of the screen?

14 Replies to “Remember AOL Keywords?”

      1. I feel like he misunderstood that part of your article. His response doesn’t seem to be answering the question as to exactly how a company “owned” a keyword, he seems to be talking about us, the consumers, having to pay to use AOL, which we already know. Either that, or he worded that in a very confusing way if he actually meant the former.

  1. AOL keywords might have been a great idea… But their customer service and billing was a nightmare. It is good AOL has disappeared for all practical purposes.

  2. “Visit us on the Web at America Online, keyword PBS Kids” i always remember hearing that at the end of every show and never knew what it meant. I was so young, we didn’t even have Internet, or cable. We eventually got a pc, but Google was already well on its way by then.
    It was kind of soothing hearing it all the time, though. Just to remind you of home, I guess.

  3. I was reminiscing about this and I remember the awesome Nickelodeon channel I used to watch. “AOL keyword ‘nick’!”. Good times. 🙂

    The wild west times of the internet.

    1. Ha—great analogy. Never really thought of it that way before. It’s different though, in that AOL created them, vs hashtags, where anyone can create them, and there can be any variation on a hashtag.

  4. If you remember, AOL keywords could also trigger “WebApps” way way before anyone knew what WebApps are and what they become. Remeber AOL Welcome screen? That was a mini “app” inside the AOL software. Keywords like Weather, or Nick, or whatever else had these Apps attached to them as well which were very separate from the actual website of the time. Again, another ahead of the curve technology that just “now has shown up”. Also, I firmly believe they failed because it was stuck in a sandboxed/walled-garden and kept proprietary. If AOL made it available for ANYONE to use on the web no matter the ISP, it would have taken off and things would have been very different. They could still own and power the technology, (like google), but everyone can use it. And they make money via advertising, Sales to the keyword platform, etc… But they didnt, it was stuck on their system and you had to pay for it…. And they failed. Its human nature, people dont like paying for things if they dont deem it necessary.

    1. Good point, Mike. I think AOL was ahead of their time with the technology and big picture vision, but I agree that the walled garden model didn’t work out. It’s too bad they were too restrictive with their users.

  5. I remember going to keyword: WWF, you could e-mail wrestlers and stuff. I remember emailing a joke to Stone Cold Steve Austin and he replied something like “that was funny” or “good stuff”.. This was back in 1998 or 1999. The WWF aol channel eventually shut down in like 2000, as did most every other AOL keyword channel, which sucked. But yea that’s basically my only memory of AOL keywords

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