Members of 1.2 million-member free email and Web page provider GeoCities are complaining bitterly and in some cases abandoning the service because of new advertisements that pop up when their free Web pages are accessed.
"I require a Web site that has a sense of credibility," reads a farewell message posted to the GeoCities Web site for a scientific organization called the Thirring Institute. "These advertisements detract from the value of my work and the credibility of this institute. I apologize to anyone who has been subjected to them in recent visitations to these Web pages. These ads were not chosen by the institute and have nothing to do with it nor do I support any of the businesses mentioned within them. I have voiced my complaints with GeoCities and am moving these pages."
Message boards inside and outside GeoCities are bristling with criticism of the ads. Among users' complaints is that the pop-up ads are crashing browsers, and one user referred, in the GeoCities discussion forum, to potential retaliation against GeoCities advertisers.
"My pages can no longer be reached 80 percent of the time and those who depend on the support group there, who are all terminally ill, are mounting their own campaign against all sponsors of GeoCities ads," said the angry GeoCitizen. "I think this reaction should show GeoCities that although advertising is fine, this particular method is sadly mistaken."
GeoCities' new ad program comes as a growing number of sites that give away email and Web services struggle to turn their large memberships into moneymaking propositions through advertising, while trying not to irritate their users.
GeoCities has been extremely successful in attracting users and is considering an IPO next year. The company also has been the target of buyout attention from potential suitors, rumored to include Yahoo. (See related story)
GeoCities members have encountered three types of corporate advertising on their free sites. The first, GeoGuide, is an optional program that rewards ad hosts with points that can be redeemed for prizes such as frequent-flier miles or computer products. The second type, known as "Geostitials," were interstitial full-page ads that came up before members' home pages. Those were abandoned because of member complaints, according to GeoCities chief executive David Bohnett.
The third type, called GeoPop, appears in front of the GeoCities Web page when a visitor first enters the system. A cookie on the Web surfer's computer makes the ad reappear subsequently once per hour.
Users who pay a $4.95 fee for their sites do not have to contend with ads. And when the ad program officially launches later this month, users who participate in the GeoGuide option will not have pop-up advertisements.
Bohnett acknowledged that there have been technical difficulties with the pop-up ads. He said the ads were crashing various browsers and that GeoCities was working on fixing the problem. And a caching problem, already fixed, prevented America Online users from closing the ads.
Bohnett said user feedback on the new ads had been mostly positive.
"People say, 'We understand, just as long as we can have our free home page,'" said Bohnett. "Over half the comments have been, 'We understand and support what you're doing.' Well over half. And a lot of the other responses have been questions."
Some of the newsgroup activity reflected that sentiment. "I don't really think you can complain when you get 3MB of disk space for absolutely nothing," wrote one user.
But GeoCities, as well as other free Web page providers, ultimately may conclude that involuntary ads are not worth the ill will they provoke.
"There's a fine line between presenting ads and forcefully presenting ads," said International Data Corporation analyst Jill Frankle. "I think that over time, things like this will alienate people...As competition continues, the way sites differentiate themselves may be advertising, or lack of advertising, or a limit to the extent that advertising encroaches on people's Web surfing."
Indeed, one volunteer GeoCities "community leader" reminded dissatisfied users in a GeoCities forum that if they didn't like the ads, they were welcome to seek ad-free pastures elsewhere.
"If you think this is so bad, no one has locked the door on you and thrown away the key," the leader said. "Find another free site that doesn't use commercial sponsorship and see if you can get some help when you need it. At least effort is being made in GeoCities. All I can say is, 'Good luck in your search!'"
Online services such as Prodigy and AOL have faced similar protests from users complaining about interstitial and pop-up advertisements.
Frankle also suggested that GeoCities users may object to the ads because they think of their Web pages as their own "personal space." "It's not surprising that they're not happy," she said.
Bohnett minimized the importance of individual user departures. "We're sensitive to every concern we get, but with 1.2 million members, I think some people might leave because it's raining outside. I don't think that's representative of the millions of people that are supportive."
Bohnett noted that at the same time the pop-up ads were first introduced in a small test about three months ago, the company also increased users' free disk space from 2 to 3MB. "We have always tied free service to additional support from advertisers," he added.
Despite the extra disk space, users complain the pop-up ads are a high price to pay for the free services.
"All of the Web sites were set up with the understanding that all they would require is a little logo on your Web page," complained one writer on a Usenet newsgroup. "I have no intention of letting them profit from my creativity if they are going to breach our original contract...GeoCities won't be getting any traffic from me any longer."