This week AOL celebrates the company’s 25 year anniversary. Throughout the internet service provider turned online advertising company’s history, they’ve been the force behind some of the most epic web-related fails known to man.
While it would be impossible to document the company’s endless list of shortcomings, there are some that distinguish themselves from the pack.
Here are 18 of the AOL’s biggest fails throughout the years, in no particular order.
1. Customer Service Fail
In June of 2006, Vincent Ferrari called AOL in an attempt to cancel his account. After waiting 15 minutes to speak with a representative, Vincent soon found out that AOL wasn’t going to let him go so easily. Following much debate, AOL finally agreed to cancel his account, but made sure to let him know that they were only trying to keep him as a customer for his “own good.”
2. Digg Spam Fail
AOL was called out for the sketchy measures they took to make the front page of Digg.com in August of 2006. The company had pushed their Weblogs stories to the front page by encouraging employees to submit and Digg their own, and fellow staff members’ stories.
3. Rebranding Fail
AOL officially rebranded their company as “Aol.” in November of 2009. The new Aol. kicked off their launch with several new logos which were clearly created in five minutes using Photoshop. Just what AOL needed to revitalize their dying brand.
4. Bebo Fail
Following an $850 million acquisition in 2008, AOL announced this year that they would either be selling, or shutting down Bebo. Recently, current CEO Tim Armstrong went on record stating the deal “really fell apart.” I’d say so.
5. Search Data Fail
In August of 2006, AOL Research leaked a file containing 25 million keyword searches conducted by over 650,000 users on one of its websites. Though the data was intended for “research,” AOL users weren’t thrilled about the public release of potentially sensitive information. AOL pulled the file three days later.
6. Disk Solicitation Fail
Up until 2006, AOL was known for the massive distribution of their software installation disks. As the disks went largely unused, the company came under fire for their blatant disregard of the negative environmental impact that they had. In August of 2006, AOL decided to “go green” and halt the production of their disks.
7. Yahoo Cloning Fail
In April of 2007, AOL redesigned their site and encouraged visitors to “experience the new AOL.com.” Their new face, however, looked strangely familiar to some. Why? AOL’s new look was a complete rip-off of Yahoo.com. Apparently, AOL was reading Tony Robbins at the time — “If you want to be successful, find someone who has achieved the results you want and copy what they do and you’ll achieve the same results.” Unfortunately for AOL, it didn’t exactly play out like that.
8. Usenet Fail
In 1993, AOL gave their customers access to Usenet …limited access, that is. It soon came to light that AOL neglected to list one specific newsgroup in “standard view.” Which group, you ask? None other than alt.aol-sucks.The group, however, was listed in the “alternate view” with the altered description “flames and complaints about America Online” accompanying it.
9. Terms of Service Fail
In the early years of AOL’s popularity, the company came under fire for its strict and elaborate terms of service. Users of the service were required to agree to the terms listed, which gave them grounds to censor user-generated content — oh, and they did.
Here are just a few of AOL’s ridiculous terms of service violations:
- Using words deemed “dirty” in AOL chatrooms (e.g. using the word “breast” when discussing how to prepare chicken in a cooking-themed chatroom).
- Posting content with an “inappropriate” subject matter on AOL message boards (e.g. users discussing how to prevent hacking).
- Creating a profile containing “bad” words (e.g. community leader Douglas Kuntz was unable to update his profile to display his last name as it violated AOL’s TOS).
10. 56k Connection Fail
The fact that some people are still forced to use 56k internet due to lack of broadband in their area is sad enough, AOL’s offering of the service is even sadder. For just $9.99 per month, you can enjoy the slowest internet connection in existence with AOL’s dated software included. What a deal!
11. AIM Pages Fail
Created with the intent of overthrowing the (then) popular social networking giant MySpace, AIM Pages debuted in May of 2006. Linking the social networking service with the widely used AOL Instant Messenger, the site was far from a success. AOL closed the doors on AIM Pages the following year, moving user profiles to Bebo.
12. Netscape.com Fail
In August of 2007, AOL revamped Netscape.com, turning it into a social bookmarking platform similar to Digg. As you probably know by now, the service wasn’t exactly a hit. AOL would eventually set up Netscape.com as a virtual clone of AOL.com.
13. Community Leaders Fail
Up until 2005, AOL monitored message boards and chatrooms using “community leaders.” These moderators were online volunteers who managed AOL’s communities without pay. A class action lawsuit was filed against AOL in 1999, claiming that their community leader program violated U.S. labor laws. The company immediately reduced the privileges and power of their community leaders, and eventually ended the program in 2005.
14. Overcharging Fail
Throughout their history, AOL has frequently come under fire for various billing issues. One of the most notable concerns was the fact that AOL rounded up 15 seconds of internet use to charge for a whole minute. AOL was later sued for improper billing practices by former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro.
15. Postmortem Billing Fail
If AOL is going to make it hard for you to cancel their services when you’re alive, they definitely aren’t going to make it any easier for you when you’re dead. In August of 2004, the official requirements for canceling the account of a deceased person were made public. Anyone wishing to cancel the account of a dead customer is required to send in a letter of cancellation with the following information included:
- Master screen name of the account.
- Name and billing address listed on the account.
- Name of the account holder.
- Method of payment used on the account.
- The last four digits of the credit or debit card used to pay for the account.
16. AOL Broadband Fail
While they’ve been known for their 56k internet services, AOL also provided broadband …kinda. AOL partnered with cable and DSL providers across the country to package the AOL software with broadband internet (at a paid premium of course). Customers that had this package were charged up to $10 per month to use the feature heavy AOL software.
17. Goodmail Fail
AOL implemented Goodmail, a certified e-mail system, in 2005. This service allowed businesses to send e-mails to their customers with a stamp that identified them as a trusted source. This also reduced the risk of legit e-mails getting caught in spam filters. Not bad, right? Well, AOL decided to pass on the charges to customers, drawing criticism from AOL users nationwide.
18. Merger Fail
AOL and Time Warner combined forces to create AOL Time Warner in 2000. Time Warner soon found out that the merger was not mutually beneficial. Immediately following the merger, Time Warner saw a decrease in the profitability of AOL. In 2002, the company reported a 99 billion dollar loss, and elected to remove “AOL” from their name the following year. As 2009 came to a close, AOL ceased all relations with Time Warner, becoming a completely separate entity.
Got an AOL fail we’ve missed? Post it in our comments section.
LOL @ AOL.
#18 — It’s hard to believe Time Warner didn’t seen that coming.
“Time Warner soon found out that the merger was not mutually beneficial.”
Zachariah Granville says
Its sad how far this company has fallen.
Fallen? How did AOL fall? It seems to be no different than before!
They still have not hit bottom.
how is AOL even still around?
That’s what I was wondering!!
AOL has always sucked, it’s just that people never realized it. The internet was new and people didn’t know what to expect or how these things worked. The fact that they could get on their email and chat online was good enough, people didn’t need much more than that. AOL really failed hard as the 90s came to a close though. How could such a huge tech company completely fail to keep up with the times? They’re like a dinosaur lumbering along until a giant asteroid wipes them out. It’s like they’re frozen in time or something. Even when they try and rebrand or pick up an asset it just totally fails because they have no idea what they’re doing. Is it just me, or did all the business school dropouts end up at AOL?
Its not sad, its awesome. The company was a fail from the start and this list highlighted how poor the service was. I’m sure they would of censored the web if they could, they way they disliked you from visiting websites that are out of the AOLOL domain.
You forgot the iTunes integration FAIL! For a long time I had to pay to keep my AOL going just to keep access to my iTMS purchases. Until some time in Feb 2006 they added a new way of being able to login/Authenticate for iTMS purchased content, but not pay fo the AOL “service” or AOL Internet service provision.
And then they final began stopping support for AOL authentication in iTMS last year, forcing you to change it to a mac account, but they wouldn’t allow me to merge it with my other existing mac account. FAIL!
they forgot aol’s hulu clone fail in2tv or whatever its called, the website looked like it was stuck in the 90’s with its small movie player.
Frank Dinolfo says
What about the connection failure in 1997? When there data-centers crashed?
WebTV clone. It failed in amazing ways. Had a friend lose her job there in that mess.
The Merger Fail was the worst. Time Warner was freaking insane to go along with that deal. One of the worst business decisions in the U.S… EVER
AOL is where things on the web go to die… I can’t count the number of innovative startups they have bought and ruined. Goowy.com (webtop) to name one. And then there was the purchase of nullsoft/winamp, which was a player far ahead of it’s time, and virtually stopped all progress… ug. FU AOL
Always love to hear the (negative) viewpoints of a Playstation addict. Seriously these are most of the fails … Still kind of hoping the company turns things around. I know, it makes no sense. Just like in 1996 for Apple … all over again.
This mid-90’s ad
i think that guy on the first one canceled his account for publicity, and in turn, got that fired; what a jerk.
AOL is still really popular though, according to alexa, it’s the 46th most popular site. They are in decline though, down 5% in views in the last 3 months and down even more since 09. I guess they are slowly dying. Good thing I guess, if they fail this much, it seems like everything they touch goes to fail, they must be emitting some kind of fail aura or something.
Web Design Kent says
Love the customer service fail, wow. I wonder how much landfill is made up of AOL discs?
O_o what the hell is Bebo?
In any rate, when we canceled back in 2000, AOL kept contacting us for 6 months straight trying to tell us we never paid the past amount, we got a hold of corporate office and faxed them a receipt while still on the phone and it was made public for a while (at least in my city) that the company was fraudulent and that consumers should be wary of signing up with them.
s west says
Vista fail – Have a friend who used aol (no i didnt recommend them his family did) and when he upgraded his computer from xp to vista – aol crashed.
He finally moved to another isp. Not quite sure if the software, or the dsl modem thing (not happy with vista))was causing the problem but aol and vista was nasty. Indian tech support pretty useless too.
what about WINAMP for the WIN ??
Their biggest fail in my mind? When they went from a 20-hours a month service to unlimited and customers were left with busy signals instead of the familiar 56k screech and squeal for several months.
Oh man, you didn’t even hit on the best ones
19. Walled Garden
They charged more for AOL for all their content and “features” that can be had everywhere else on the Internet for free. For the longest time, its less savy/bright customers though AOL was the Internet. Clicking on the AOL icon and complaining to tech support the Internet didn’t work when they were on a completely separate ISP or on a company/private network. The upside was it kept the totally clueless safely segregated from the rest of the Internet, but once a message board or usenet was opened up to AOL users, those communities had to deal with a sudden influx of clueless newbs and dimwits.
20. Client software
Where do I start, this software was computer tech’s nightmare. Many versions of it were nearly impossible to uninstall, was pre-installed on every computer and broke the network settings of a computer when it forced all Internet traffic through its client even when disconnected. This was annoying dealing with company computers where a clue less user installed their hell spawn client on a computer so they can use the “Internet” when their Outlook and Internet Explorer icon was sitting there plain as day. In some cases, it messed up the networking stack on Windows 95/98 so bad the only solution was to reinstall and threaten death or a severe beating to the user if they ever tried to use AOL on their work computer again.
WELL DONE says
Just a shame — if they werent dickheads they’d probably still be in business, i had aol back in the late 90s and it would take as much as an hour to get online
AOL are global douches. I won’t forget AOL in Britain swamping the country with those damned discs for the best part of a decade, the worst experience I had was the time when they sent a spam CD in a pretty biggish package, which wouldn’t drop into my letterbox when the postman came to deliver it. At the time I was at work but I went to our local Post Office to collect my “package” (the postman drops a little card with a tick, no mention of who the sender is etc) on a saturday morning and being stuck in a queue with 20 people who were royally pissed when they found out that we’d all been forced to traipse down in the expectation that it’s something important and upon getting there and showing our IDs/Passports etc we were handed boxes containing those CDs!
So glad it never caught on here in Australia. I do remember the discs coming in the mail and on magazine covers though.
I really have to say this is creative if I ever seen creative. Good work Timothy you’re an inspiration to the tech blogging community. As for these fails I’m guessing there’ll be more to come.
Scott Prock says
I fail to see how they were celebrating their 25th anniversary. What were they before the Internet became commercialized?
The first ISP’s I remember were AOL & Compuserve, tried AOL for a few weeks and then found Earthlink which was the first ISP to charge a flat rate instead of a per minute charge. That was back in 1995. 25th Anniversary would mean AOL was around 10 years prior … doing WHAT, they certainly couldn’t have been America Online because America wasn’t online prior to 1994 (in a commercial environment) there were only private universities and government uber geeks online.
What am I missing here???
Jeroen Marechal says
Thats a big list of fails. lol
I believe AOL failed as a whole because people finally realised that you didn’t need a middle-man to view the internet. For years people believed that AOL was the only way one could search the web and see the WWW. When ISP’s started sprouting up with direct hook-ups, that brought them to the ground.
I see Facebook doing the same thing. All it does is steal traffic from actual websites. When people realise that a person’s actual website will have a far superior user experience than their Facebook page, Facebook will go back to what it was all along; a place for teenagers (and pervs) to look at pics of their friends and pass along mindless info.