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Users distressed by Xoom.com tests

The community site rattles users by testing a glitchy new feature, sparking fears that advertisements on personal home pages are on the way.

Community site Xoom.com rattled users recently when tests of a new feature caused glitches and sparked fears that advertisements on personal home pages are on the way.

Xoom.com has achieved much of its present popularity because it doesn't put ad banners, pop-up ads, or watermarks on users' home pages. Other free home page sites such as GeoCities (set to be acquired by portal giant Yahoo) have incurred considerable user wrath when they introduced ads on personal sites.

Xoom.com admitted it was testing a new feature for home pages last week that would include a button with links to sponsors. The addition, part of a "fairly major redesign" of home pages, will include new navigation and search features, the company said.

But Xoom.com insists the addition will not resemble the pop-up ads or watermarks that have irked users at other sites.

"We are very, very sensitive to the fact that people don't like us messing with their Web pages," said Xoom.com chief technology officer Vijay Vaidyanathan.

"The pop-up gets in the face of someone who wants to look at the page, and the watermark actually obscures user content, and it modifies the HTML, which we didn't want to do. It took us a while to figure the solution out, but the people we've shown it to think we've done a pretty good job."

Xoom.com will announce the new feature next week. The firm said it had warned users that it would be conducting tests and solicited comments and bug reports. Vaidyanathan said some users responded.

"There were a couple of situations that we did catch, and we wanted to catch all these things before we go live," Vaidyanathan said. "For certain browsers on certain sites there were some things that went wrong. These guys saw it and got mad and I don't blame them."

In addition to reporting bugs to the company, users took to Xoom.com's bulletin boards to voice their complaints.

Xoom.com has 6.3 million users, 1.5 million of whom are home page builders. Other registered users come to Xoom.com for chat, free email, clip art, greeting cards, and shareware downloads.

The firm's revenue model so far has been driven by targeted sales pitches to its members, who fill out demographic profiles and consent to receive solicitations upon registration. The remaining 35 percent of revenues are from advertisements on the site.

Vaidyanathan would not rule out eventually putting banners on users' pages.

"We're not putting ads on users' pages now, but that may change in the future," said Vaidyanathan. "You should never say never."