Net Effect: The word is out on Web-based IM

Meebo has 354% yearly growth but trails leader Google Talk

NEW YORK -- As instant messaging has become ubiquitous, online programs facilitating that form of communication have seen sizable increases in the past year, particularly Meebo.

According to Nielsen//NetRatings, Meebo's unique monthly audience has grown by 354% since August 2006, when the site first registered above the baseline for measurable data. Although it had nearly 2 million visitors in June, the site still ranks behind Google Talk, which has grown 149% in that time period, up to almost 2.3 million visitors. And Paltalk.com has seen its visitors increase by about 26% in the past 10 months.

These sites differ from traditional IM systems such as AOL Instant Messenger and Apple's IChat in that a user does not have to download an application to access them. Users only have to sign in on the service's online pages to launch the programs.

The wide proliferation of broadband, combined with the fact that many workplaces, libraries and schools put up firewalls to block application-based IM, make these online programs an increasingly attractive option, said Jason Lee, a media analyst at NetRatings.

With Meebo, users can sign on to the service with existing accounts, including AIM, Yahoo Messenger, MSN's services or Google Talk. The program also introduced chat rooms in March where users can share photos, YouTube videos and other types of media.

Although Paltalk had fewer than 500,000 visitors in June, Lee sees a unique opportunity with the program. In addition to video chat capabilities and compatibility with AIM and Yahoo's service, Paltalk also offers MySpace-type profile pages, a lucrative option in the current online environment.

"If these companies start focusing on the social networking aspects, there's tremendous growth that can be captured by each of them," Lee said.

But he said application-based IM still dominates the field, and a "good share" of the users of the Web-based technology are Generation Y and younger.

"It's gone a little past early adopters," Lee said. "It's starting to penetrate the mainstream, but it still remains to be seen whether they'll be able to overtake the more traditional services."

The other fast-growing application-based chat services also offer capabilities that distinguish them from traditional IM programs. Skype Messenger, which has grown 20% in the past 10 months, offers Voice-over-Internet Protocol and also avatar-based chat program IMVU, which has grown 154% in the time period and has 7 million users signed up.

Nielsen//NetRatings is owned by the Nielsen Co., parent company of The Hollywood Reporter.
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