I guess many of us, especially in the tech community, view AOL as we do Howard Stern, and offer comments like, “Is he still around?” and “Why?”
So when Verizon announced that it was buying AOL for $4.4 billion, it seemed yet another part of the checkered history of AOL mergers and acquisitions, with the primary question of “What are they getting?” Mentioned prominently in most news stories were some of their web content sites, such as TechCrunch, Engadget and The Huffington Post.
TechCrunch is certainly part of AOL’s strategy of dedicated content sites with a high technical content. It focuses on information technology companies, from startups to giants, with news of venture funding (which is very important to tech people), rumors and tips on upcoming gadgets and software, and a gigantic database of about a half-million items profiling companies, events, people, etc.
It also hosts a giant hackathon (yes, that means just what you think) each year called TechCrunch Disrupt, which involves startups pitching their products for money and prizes. It ran into some controversy in 2013 when one hacking/creation session produced a mobile application called Titstare, which featured pictures of men staring at women and their breasts, which was either an amazing satire on men behaving badly or just another example of men behaving badly, depending on your viewpoint.
Engadget describes itself as “a web magazine with obsessive daily coverage of everything new in gadgets and consumer electronics.” On today’s copy were stories on upgrades to the Apple Watch, using QR codes to determine counterfeit goods on Alibaba’s online store, and Nikon’s camera mount for dogs. Considering how most dogs say “Hi,” this might give you pause, especially since pictures are triggered by upswings in the dog’s heart rate. Enough said.
The Huffington Post can hardly be accused of being a neutral news source. Even if you agree with many of its views, as I do, the way it is written will never be an example of unbiased journalism. Often implying things and stretching analogies to the breaking point, it can certainly entertain; this is probably why it is the largest source of reposted articles on Facebook.
How will Verizon handle sites that criticize it? In the past, Verizon sponsored a site called SugarString, a “news” site that was specifically prohibited from talking about the FCC and net neutrality. It imploded under heavy criticism very quickly. So I’m guessing not well.
Anyway, combined, these three sites get more than 200 million unique visitors each month. Not shabby, but probably not worth $4.4 billion.
On My Phone
O.K., what about video content? AOL has some, including its own creations, and Verizon has announced that it is starting a streaming video service aimed at cell phones and tablets later this summer.
Verizon already has deals with many suppliers through its FiOS service as well, so that’s probably only a small part of it. But the new video will feature paid content, free content and “ad-supported” content. Ah-ha.
Lovely, Lovely Ads
Bingo. AOL has spent the last several years buying other, and creating in-house, “ad-tech” companies. These firms specialize in matching ads with the people who they believe will be receptive to, and buy from, particular advertisers. AOL has supposedly spent more than a half-billion bucks for acquisitions recently, and under a CEO who saw this as AOL’s future, apparently has grown quite a lot of expertise on its own.
Now combine that with what Verizon knows about you. Depending on whether you use it for mobile (and it is the U.S.’s largest mobile carrier)/FiOS, it knows where you are and have been, what web sites you visit, what TV shows you watch, even your billing history. If this doesn’t offer its analysts a very good picture of who you are and what you like, what could? And advertisers will pay for that; in fact, AOL already offers a bidding service for advertisers to target specific audiences.
So you can expect a lot, and I mean a lot, of ads aimed directly at you. Lovely.
What to Do?
This might be the perfect time to mention Adblock Plus. This has been around for some time as an add-on for Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox browsers, and does a wonderful job of eliminating pop-up and banner ads, as well as all that junk on the right side of Facebook. There’s also a version out for Android phones.
There is no simple add-on for iPhones yet — the present fix requires you to download an alternative browser and not use the built-in Safari. But considering how slow and overall crappy Safari is, you should have installed Chrome long ago.
Back to the Beginning
Verizon is obviously big enough, and with enough other things in its favor, to avoid becoming as disastrous a partnership as AOL Time Warner. That truly was a textbook example of mergers gone badly. And Verizon has enough money to buy AOL for cash, instead of stupid leveraging.
If the ad sales work out, it will certainly pay off. A pity for us.
Cliff Feldwick is owner of Riverside Computing and does PC troubleshooting, network set-ups and data retrieval for small businesses, when not zapping ads with a light saber. He can be reached at 410-880-0171 or at email@example.com. Older columns are available online at http://feldwick.com.