June 23, 1998 1:55 PM PDT

GeoCitizens fume over watermark

A transparent, floating watermark that GeoCities introduced last week has caused an emotional uproar among a number of the Net community's "homesteaders."

GeoCities has countered the protests, saying that the company and its community leaders have received a flood of positive email applauding the watermark.

The disapproving homesteaders, who get free Web pages on GeoCities in exchange for carrying GeoCities' advertisements, have begun posting calls for protest on their pages and are threatening to walk away from the 2 million-member Web community.

"The watermark is intrusive and distracting; it jumps irritatingly when the page scrolls, and since it is a link in itself, it can cover up the links of the page and obstruct parts of the page, more so at lower resolutions," Lee Yuan Sheng, a protesting GeoCitizen from Singapore, said in an email interview. "Homesteaders feel that their pages are being defaced; unlike a banner ad, the watermark is constantly in that corner of the window."

"I see the 'watermark' as nothing more than an attack on the creative design of my sites, an annoyance, and a distraction," wrote another angry GeoCitizen in a newsgroup posting. "GeoCities has really blown it this time and I recommend that everybody who has sites on GeoCities should walk away until GeoCities wakes up to themselves."

Homesteaders are frustrated because they can't control or remove the mark. It remains on the bottom right-hand corner of a GeoCities page at all times. Though it is transparent, it can temporarily block links or text.

But the watermark is part of the tradeoff that Net users who want free pages make. Anyone who gets a free page was required to post a "Free Home Pages" link at the bottom. Now the watermark is automatically included in every free home page.

GeoCities said in a letter to its members that the mark will increase brand awareness and advertising impressions of each page.

"Ever since day one, we've had a mandatory link," said GeoCities chairman David Bohnett. "[The watermark] is a way to create more flexibility so people don't have to put more on their page."

Those who don't want to post GeoCities advertising, including the watermark, can pay a $4.95 monthly fee for their GeoPlus Web site, which also excludes them from pop-up ads. Right now, the standard GeoCities address that comes in addition to the GeoPlus address shows the watermark, which has made many paid members scratch their heads.

Bohnett told CNET NEWS.COM that GeoCities is working on disabling the watermark from non-GeoPlus addresses as well.

But Net users who want a free page also have alternatives, such as Net community Tripod, which offers a similar deal--free pages in exchange for ads.

The free Web page space is continuing to grow as companies seek to create community and along with it, a vehicle for their advertisements.

Many of the protesters are angered because the watermark comes on top of the company's decision last year to introduce pop-up advertisements, one of the universally less popular types of Net ads, on their pages. Users at the time also threatened to leave the service. At the time of their release, the pop-up ads also caused certain Web browsers to crash, the company said.

The outcry among certain GeoCitizens underscores the emotional connection that Web users have in being members of online communities. Many GeoCities homesteaders are Web veterans who have been using the Internet for community purposes for years; they tend to scorn corporate efforts on their sites. Many also dislike being the target of marketing efforts.

"In general, most of the folks in this space that are building home pages are truly an early adopter crowd," said Patrick Keane, an analyst with Jupiter Communications. "They were some of the original people online and knew the online experience that was built on education and community. That environment will be very angry at the corporatization of the Internet."

But for any company competing for eyeballs and advertisements, the harsh reality that many need to face is that even Web communities like GeoCities have to make money one way or another.

"It's difficult for these people to realize that these are companies that need to stay afloat somehow," said Keane.

The watermark also currently links back to GeoCities Avenues, a directory of homesteader sites organized into distinct content channels, but will eventually link to other sites that feature similar content to the original page.

GeoCities' Bohnett emphasized that the company has received overwhelmingly positive response to the new feature. Many members have been emailing in feedback about the changes, and also have accepted the new feature on their pages, he said.

"I always thought the mandatory free home page link at the bottom made it hard to create neatly organized home pages," one content homesteader wrote in an email forwarded to NEWS.COM by Bohnett. "The watermark is so cool, it looks neat, and it doesn't really mess up your page."

Bohnett added: "There's been a tremendous amount of positive response. For the negative response, we will actively seek out and listen, and reincorporate that back into changes and remodifications to the program."

But in the newsgroup space, the tone remains critical.

The majority of postings about the GeoCities watermark have expressed outrage, and have tried to find ways around it. Currently, the watermark only appears on more recent versions of Web browsers. Older browser versions will not support the watermark.

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