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Ad banners seek home on ICQ

The popular instant messaging service owned by AOL Time Warner's America Online quietly begins testing ways to add advertising banners onto its software.

ICQ, the popular instant messaging service owned by AOL Time Warner's America Online, has quietly begun testing ways to add advertising banners onto its software.

Beginning last week, some ICQ members began noticing new banners that stretched across the lower portion of their message boxes. The banners are instructional areas that link to ICQ Web pages offering tips and tutorials of its service. However, they make ICQ the latest IM service to lay a groundwork on prime real estate for advertisements.

"We've always said that we are going to monetize the service so that it's beneficial to our users. So yes, we are," an AOL representative confirmed when asked if the company plans to launch third-party advertisements. No time frame was given.

The instructional blurbs can be found on the lower portion of an ICQ member's dialog window, which appears when sending instant text messages to other ICQ members. Only some users of ICQ's latest version, ICQ2000b, are affected.

AOL has sold ad banners throughout ICQ's Web site since acquiring the IM service in June 1998. But the company has so far stopped short of selling advertising on ICQ's IM interface. Adding ad banners marks the latest attempt from the online giant to develop a wider audience that it can offer its prized advertisers.

Instant messaging has become one of the most popular features created for the Internet. It lets members of the same service communicate using instant text messages to one another. People can also swap files or use other software applications through an IM service, leading many tech heavyweights such as Microsoft and Yahoo to put considerable attention on it.

AOL has always touted ICQ's large population of younger, more international members compared with its other services. ICQ has 88 million registered members, while its counterpart, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), has 84 million, according to a January earnings release.

AIM has already added third-party ad banners on its service, and the IM service run by rival Yahoo has pasted banners into its conference windows.

But many have been skeptical of the profit potential of instant messaging. Despite the popularity of instant messaging, many analysts have questioned whether advertising on the service would turn away people or simply be ineffective.

Already, a site called AdBusters has launched a guide dedicated to turning off the banners. This guide includes a step-by-step tutorial for finding and changing the banner controls.

The guide has the potential to become popular; some longtime ICQ members that are affected by ad banners already have begun expressing concern that their visual real estate is being taken over by corporate interests.

"The thing I dislike is that the banner ads 'magically' appeared on my system, and I didn't change any of my settings or download an update," ICQ member Matt Geary wrote in an e-mail. "In the 5 years I've used ICQ, this is the first time anything has truly annoyed me, and I consider it a major annoyance."