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AOL quietly tests community site

America Online has quietly launched Hometown AOL, a home page site aimed to compete with the likes of GeoCities and Tripod.

America Online this week quietly began a public test of Hometown AOL, a home page site aimed to compete with the likes of GeoCities, Tripod, and TheGlobe.

The site, which began its beta test with no announcement or fanfare, allows users to build a home page that can then be categorized and placed in a "community."

Although AOL is known for community offerings such as chat and email, many subscribers don't even know that they are allowed to create home pages as part of their memberships. It is not clear whether those pages will become part of Hometown AOL.

The home page offerings are one part of a multifaceted strategy to make AOL the most attractive Web site possible. Although the company would not comment on the beta site, it is clearly trying to capitalize on one of the most popular trends on the Net.

Sites that offer free home pages that are then organized to create communities of interest. The sites often use the pages to advertise and enter revenue-sharing agreements.

While other sites allow anyone with Net access to build home pages, it is unclear whether AOL eventually will do the same. The site now states that building home pages is a function "available only to AOL members."

AOL refused to say when the site will be fully open or who will be able to use it. "It's evolving," AOL spokeswoman Jeanie Ryan said. "It's a place where people can gather and share their personal home pages."

Neither she nor David Gang, senior vice president of strategic development, at AOL would discuss the project beyond that.

For the past month, the company has built its AOL.com Web site into a full-blown portal in hopes of competing in an increasingly crowded market dominated by Yahoo and facing new competition from Netscape's Netcenter, Microsoft's MSN Internet Start, and others.

Last month, the site underwent a number of technical and aesthetic alterations, including the launch of its My News personalization service and a redesign of its home page.

After the release of its earnings report today, AOL president Bob Pittman today told analysts that the online service is pursuing a three-pronged strategy to develop AOL.com, CompuServe, and ICQ into portal offerings.