AOL’s Top 5 Blunders of 2007

AOL's top 5 blunders of 2007

For the average person surfing the Web, AOL didn’t stand out for a lot of well-publicized blunders this year, in stark contrast to their inability to stay out of the press last year for fiascos that would embarrass any company with a moral compass, much less a company that once was the Internet. All the same, AOL’s blunders this year were surprising for how clearly they showed AOL’s lack of integrity, dignity, and direction. Unlike last year I had no problem deciding how to order this list, so no coin-flipping this time…

AOL leaks layoff news, handles layoffs by email, and mocks laid off AOLers.

Say what you want about AOL’s inability to catch up to the Internet these days, they sure can blow the playing field wide open for how layoffs are handled. How about employing managers who are so burnt up over how badly AOL treats them that they willingly leak details of the who, what, when and why of October’s layoffs to Silicon Valley Insider, making a previously shamed Henry Blodget of former stock analysis fame once more well-known and well-liked among industry insiders of all stripes?

It goes without saying: No matter how many anonymous AOL brown-nosers post on SI about how great their company is, how many good times they’ve had, and how much their jobs will be missed, the layoff leaks would never have happened if loyalty to the company was as natural as breathing to any of these folks. It’s clear why that loyalty is lacking: AOL treats people like dirt, and by “AOL” I mean Randy Falco, a hands-off, cold and uninvolved CEO, and his silly little sidekick, Ron Grant, who is better-known for useless prattle, vanity and sucking up than he is for leveling with and connecting to his otherwise directionless charges.

To add insult to the injury of the whole world knowing about your layoff before anyone at AOL would tell you to your face that you were fired, once the layoffs were complete laid-off AOLers were even mocked and humiliated by their own boss at a roast for Randy Falco. Talk about lack of respect and feeling for your employees…that tells me the people who run AOL don’t give a damn how cold and heartless they come off. With people like that running the show and providing direction to their remaining 8,000 plus employees, I would be more wary now than ever of putting my trust into AOL as a brand or an access service, and I would install and use their software with more caution than ever before. If anything goes wrong, don’t count on AOL to give a crap.

AOL dilutes their own brand and calls it ‘innovation’.

AOL has offered nothing but a world of confusion since they decided to give away free software and focus on advertising beginning in August 2006. We’re talking over a year with no direction or clear leadership at all. People still can’t figure out which parts of AOL’s service are free, or how to cancel AOL or at least stop paying for the software they want, or whether or not AOL will be sold, split up, or be brought public by force thanks to the sale of their soul to Google, a deal they struck in 2005 which will mature in August, 2008. AOL offers one new portal after another around the world and calls it “news” but no one cares. The only real attention AOL got for portals this year was when they diluted their brand even more by turning the home page for AOL.com into an exact dupe of Yahoo!’s home page. They tried to paint that up like it was a huge innovation, but public opinion wasn’t with them on that. At all.

AOL changes course without any warning, reason or direction.

Related to the above blunder, Falco cannot seem to wrap his mind about what to do with AOL in a way that makes sense to anyone. Leading analysts scratch their heads while their questions go unanswered. The best and brightest minds in the industry cannot fathom how AOL can possibly succeed on their current path. Falco does nothing to clear up the confusion or offer a strategy that makes sense; so one can imagine former insiders correctly bemoaned Jon Miller’s sudden departure with good reason; with his rude dismissal, the light and air went out of AOL; it’s all cloak-and-dagger games from now on, complete with plenty of senseless acquisitions and selfish extravagance to round out the list of embarrassing managerial decisions this year.

Chief among AOL’s obvious gaffes this year was pouring all their money into advertising.com, based on last year’s figures, which made ad.com look like a much better bet than it has been any day since then. I could have predicted that downturn, too (in fact, I did), but I’m used to the fact that nobody at AOL will ever listen to me. But let’s get real for a moment: isn’t it truly a bad omen when the new management for a company – any company – acts as impulsively as AOL’s did by placing all their eggs into one untested (and perhaps less-than-sturdy) basket? This is the new story of AOL: grasping at golden straws, only to find out too late the gold blinding them was spray-painted on.

AOL offers new software as bad as old software; fires dept. responsible for it before release.

AOL came up with a string of well-meant disasters posing as new software this year. For instance, AOL Desktop is supposed to set the publics’ hearts afire because, among other things, it has tabbed browsing. Oh, boy. I used it for one afternoon recently just to give it a fair shake; it ate CPU and RAM on me, and it looked the same as all of AOL’s software of the past, going back to the first version of 9.0. It was confusing and hard to navigate after years of using Firefox and IE, since it boasts the feature set and intuitiveness of neither. It will also confuse people who always use AOL’s software, because it’s just different enough from older versions to send them for a loop.

Most of the bells and whistles of the new desktop portal work intermittently or not at all and every version of 9.0 VR and 9.1 has connectivity issues, which will turn off anyone. A browser that can’t make or keep a connection the Internet is an unusable browser by any standard. If you like AOL’s new software, I don’t know how you should thank the beta staff responsible for testing it, since most of them were laid off (the page I link you to shows just three beta staffers; that list was once 25 people long – until the October layoffs).

Runners-up for top blunders this year: I wanted to hold the official list at five items, but a few more things bothered me; here’s what didn’t make the final cut:

AOL moves Netscape.com’s social voting platform (the Digg clone – how can any of us forget) to Propeller.com – duh

This decision was so reckless and stupid, and has caused AOL’s traffic stats so much harm, it speaks for itself. ‘Nuff said.

AOL clings to a closed-lip refusal to acknowledge any problems within their service/company and make needed changes.

It’s just another typical day at AOL, after all.