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Yahoo tests fees for phone help

update The struggling online media company is testing a plan to charge customers $1.99 a minute for phone support, starting with customers who use its free e-mail service.

    update If you want to talk to Yahoo, you might have to pay.

    The struggling online media company is testing a plan to charge customers $1.99 a minute for phone support, a company representative said Tuesday. Yahoo has been testing the fees for about two weeks with customers who use its free e-mail service, the representative said.

    "We are continually evaluating new ways to add value to our users' experience," the representative said. "We are beta testing this service and will determine if it is something that makes sense for our business and our users."

    Faced with declining sales and mounting losses because of the online advertising slump, Yahoo has been searching for new sources of revenue over the last year. Chief Executive Terry Semel has stated his intention to reduce reliance on display advertising so that it accounts for only 50 percent of the company's revenue.

    In a step toward that goal, Yahoo launched a new subscription-based online gaming service earlier this month. The company also began charging for features on its GeoCities home-page builder and has been trying to gauge customers' willingness to pay for streaming video.

    The phone-support test marks Yahoo's latest move to tack fees on services related to e-mail. Last month, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company began charging customers to automatically forward their Yahoo messages to outside mail services and started limiting data storage on its site to encourage customers to pay for extra space.

    For now, Yahoo users will only be charged for phone support if they call a 1-900 number promoted by the test. People who access phone support by calling the company's main number will not be charged. However, Yahoo does not generally offer phone support for free services such as e-mail; instead, the company directs customers to its online support.

    Separately, Yahoo has quietly discontinued its text-only news site. Text-only sites are designed to speed loading for computers with slow Internet connections and are often used by programs designed to help visually impaired people access Web sites.

    Another Yahoo representative said the closure was a result of one of the company's ongoing "tweaks" to its site. The change will only affect a small number of people, the representative said, since less than 1 percent of the visitors to the company's news site use the text-only version. The company said it is not concerned that the change will affect visually impaired customers because people still can manipulate the font size on Yahoo's largely text-based primary news page.

    "We feel this is kind of inconsequential," the representative said.

    In recent months, Yahoo has taken other steps to curtail or change services that have sometimes raised the ire of customers. Last month, the company revised its privacy policy and reset customer preferences for receiving marketing messages. Earlier this month, Yahoo shut down its online invitations site.