In a move that extends its strategy to break down the wall between its online kingdom and the rest of the Web, America Online today said it would open up its free blogging service to anyone with an AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) account.
The move seeks to leverage AOL’s IM platform — easily its most successful offering to the general Web population — to capitalize on the rising tide of blog creation. The AOL Journals feature is already a popular destination among AOL members.
Now, AIM users will be able to submit posts to their blogs on AOL Journals through the IM system and will have the ability to control whether they are writing for public consumption or want to share their journals only with chosen users.
“The blogging phenomenon grows stronger each day and has especially taken hold among our community of members,” AOL Vice President of Community Bill Schreiner said.
AOL did not say whether the free service would eventually be populated with text or graphics advertising. Currently, the home page for the AOL Journals service comes with ads, but the individual journal pages are largely ad-free.
Analysts say that’s likely to change along with the overall look and feel of the America Online world as soon as this summer, when a reportedly planned overhaul and relaunch of the AOL.com portal is slated to happen.
That re-launch is meant to recast AOL as a portal in the vein of Yahoo and Microsoft’s MSN. Those sites are, of course, supported mainly by advertising as well as subscriptions to premium services such as enhanced Web mail programs, online gaming and online dating services.
AOL has lost some ground to its rivals in the search and portal space, but analysts say that the decision to open its services and features to the Web, while a potential drain on its subscription revenue, could pay off handsomely in the long run. Those analysts note that AIM, for instance, is hugely popular among Web users, especially younger users, who will be the group most likely to use AOL Journals.
AOL has been seeking other ways to make AIM the centerpiece of a communications-focused strategy as well, rolling out new features to enable video and photo sharing over the platform and a voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service.
Google and others, including MSN, have developed their own blogging tools or bought companies that offer them in order to capitalize on the trend, which was brought into the public eye during the 2004 presidential election, when traffic to political blogs skyrocketed.
Earlier this year, AOL discontinued its Usenet newsgroups feature, saying that blogs had gutted readership of the subject-focused message boards. Around the same time, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that blog readership increased 58 percent in 2004 and that nearly a third of all Web users had read a blog over that time frame.
Despite the froth over the blog trend, one vexing question has been how to make them pay for themselves. Google might have found the key to that riddle with its contextual ad placement service, with blogs offering nearly limitless landscape that it can populate with its relevant ads.
Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff said longer-term trends might even favor AOL finding traction with the idea behind its historic and disastrous merger with Time-Warner — the ability to deliver proprietary content to users for a fee. That strategy might work even better on the larger Web than it would within the confines of AOL.
Bernoff told the E-Commerce Times that digital music has helped break down the barriers between users and paid content and that a recent survey found that a fifth of all online consumers had paid for some type of content, including movie trailers and video clips of TV programs.
“Consumers are more willing than ever to pay for downloaded content,” Bernoff said. When the merger took place, he noted, AOL was seen as a medium to deliver Time Warner movies, music, TV and news content to users.