You have to applaud AOL (NYSE:AOL) CEO Tim Armstrong for knowing how to negotiate in public. Now that his company's search deal with Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is expiring, he's trying to keep his options open.

"Google's been a great partner," he said during yesterday's Citi's Media & Telecommunications Conference, as retold by Silicon Alley Insider. "They're obviously going to get first dibs. Microsoft and other people are very interesting partners as well."

Of course Google is going to get dibs. Armstrong came from Google, so he knows full well that no company can monetize paid search the way Big G can. It has the inventory breadth and contextual know-how to serve up the most relevant high-paying ads. Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Bing is the flavor of the quarter, but Google is the smarter choice unless Mr. Softy is willing to cut a sweetheart deal.

However, simply by introducing Microsoft into the equation, Armstrong is giving Google a heads-up that he's not going to renew blindly.

It's true that AOL is in a lousy position. Revenue and operating profits fell by 23% and 50%, respectively, at AOL in its latest quarter. Now that Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) has spun off its dot-com albatross, AOL's financial shortcomings are sure to receive more attention.

A lot has changed since Google paid $1 billion for a 5% stake in AOL four years ago. Google is bigger and more relevant. AOL has gone the other way. However, AOL is still a traffic magnet in cyberspace, and that's more important than you may think in the eyes of Google.

Microsoft already has marketing distribution deals with Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) and Facebook. The last thing it needs is for AOL to jump sides. Google bet on some poor horses, in inking costly deals with eventual dot-com laggards AOL and News Corp.'s (NYSE:NWS) MySpace, but that doesn't mean it can afford to let those partners run to the other barber in town.

Armstrong is saying the right thing, tactically speaking -- but everyone knows that Google and AOL are right for one another.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has been an AOL subscriber since the early 1990s and is frustrated that so many services have been axed. He owns no shares in any of the stocks in this story and is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.