March 31, 1999 12:25 PM PST

AOL's community push

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America Online is quietly preparing a new community directory that will tie together its user-generated home pages with chat, using its popular AOL Instant Messenger client as the primary gateway.

The new site, aptly named "Community Directory," organizes Hometown AOL home pages into topic-specific categories with chat options under each topic. For example, clicking on the "Computers & Science" channel in the directory leads to a list of topics (such as "Internet" and "Macintosh") that have links to chat rooms, Hometown pages, and Hometown's "Community Center."

The Community Directory is one service in AOL.com's "Community" site--a collection of AOL's Web-based community and communications features in one site that includes AOL Instant Messenger, free email service AOL NetMail, Hometown AOL, Web Chat, and personals directory Love@AOL.

AOL's move comes as several offline media giants are jumping into the Net community fray. Warner Bros. Online, for example, recently launched its ACMEcity "destination" site, which offers 20MB of free space for home page building along with authorized photos and other content from Warner Bros.'s television, movie, animation, and music properties so fans can build pages. The pages are then arranged into communities so users can compare pages and interact with others who share their interests, or buy products related to those properties.

As these destination sites proliferate, they pose a threat to "traditional" community sites such as TheGlobe.com and Xoom.com. But AOL could be the exception; though it is an online-only brand, it has the largest subscriber base of any ISP and it enjoys tremendous brand recognition offline as well. AOL's brand recognition caused its signature "You've got mail" greeting to be used as the title of a movie released late last year.

In addition, AOL's chat and instant messaging features have been some of its most popular services, allowing users to create "buddy lists" of other members. A community offering that combines all those features could be a big draw for Netizens.

The firm is using its latest AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) 2.0 version client as an entry point to the community services, as evidenced by the new icon that has periodically appeared on the client linking to the community site. Since the instant messenger client has been one of AOL's most popular services both inside its proprietary service and on the Web, the client is one way for the company to introduce new services on its AOL.com portal site.

AOL will further merge AIM and community features with the launch of AIM remote, according to Reggie Fairchild, director for strategic development at AOL. The service will allow home page builders to place an AIM icon on their sites so that visitors can chat with the site owner. AIM Remote can be used on any home page service, including GeoCities and Tripod, and will launch "within a few weeks," Fairchild said.

He added that the Community Directory will launch this summer.

The community site also highlights AOL's continuing move to push much of its proprietary services into the free Web space that is centered around advertising and e-commerce revenues.

"We're bringing some of the same functionality from AOL onto the Web," said Fairchild.

As an indication of its attempt to beef up its Web strategy, AOL has made many significant moves in the past year to develop separately branded portals addressing different audiences. The company has revamped a number of its sites, including AOL.com and CompuServe. AOL also has launched a new beta version of its popular ICQ instant messaging client to support more portal-like functions, including a Web search engine and redesigned community features.

The latest version of AOL Instant Messenger, like ICQ, also has a Web search box, as well as buttons that lead to news sites and community services.

"It's part of the 'AOL anywhere' strategy," said AOL spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg. "We have multiple brands to reach different audiences?to reach the Web audience as well as the online services audience."

 

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