25 Years of “You’ve Got Fail”: 18 of AOL’s Biggest Mistakes

Written by Timothy James Duffy

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.

Bonus! What your aol email address says about you


4 thoughts on “25 Years of “You’ve Got Fail”: 18 of AOL’s Biggest Mistakes

  1. Ally

    how about the fact that large portions of the country did not have enough AOL numbers to meet the demand back in the day? I can still hear the sound of it trying number after number trying to connect…

  2. ButtonGear

    Or how about their terms of service (at one point) allowing the freedom of speech to have a chatroom dedicated to the sodimization of young boys (NAMBALA), but talking about LAWFUL ownership of guns was STRICTLY forbidden. (True story; I was the “cancellation rep” that took the call).

  3. bootsy

    back in early 90's there was the latent “downloading art” that happened anytime you navigated from aol site to site. annoying!

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