As America Online Inc. turns more toward advertising dollars to offset the shrinking number of subscribers who pay a monthly fee, the company may be upsetting the longtime customers who have remained faithful over the years.
Virginia Heatwole of Rockville, for example, has been a paying customer since 1993 and turned to AOL when she decided to start her own Web log. One of things she liked about AOL Journals was the absence of advertisements on her blog page.
Now, her personalized Web page that includes her thoughts about nature and spirituality has become a platform for Netflix DVD rental ads.
"They're flashing and screaming at the top of my blog," she said.
The change came last week, when Dulles-based AOL started posting ads on the pages created by AOL Journals, which had been ad-free for two years. Back in May, the company opened the free service to nonsubscribers, saying that those blogs would contain ads but that blogs by paying customers would be ad-free.
The company, which is quickly losing subscribers to broadband service providers, switched to an "audience strategy" earlier this year, offering free music, video, blogs, and other services and features with hopes of increasing the audience and grabbing more online ad dollars.
"The decision to implement banner advertising on AOL Journals is consistent with our business and advertising practices," AOL spokeswoman Kathie Brockman said in an e-mail. The company, which hosts about 600,000 blogs, received several dozen complaints about the advertisements and is taking suggestions into consideration, she said.
"We have advertising on the AOL.com portal, in email, instant messaging, and across our network," Brockman wrote. "It is also consistent with the practices of other major blog providers on the Internet."
Some users of AOL's instant-message service are also dealing with the automatic arrival of new "buddies" on their buddy lists: AOL services called Moviefone and ShoppingBuddy. The links allow users to search for movies and products by typing instant messages, which automatically generate a reply message.
Users were notified of the change through a posting on AIM.com and were given an option to remove the new listings by going to the set-up menu to delete them, the company said.
However the new ads cannot be deleted from the blogs, and that has other bloggers such as Armand Thompson, a Tacoma, Wash.-based U.S. Army sergeant, steamed. In response, he created a new blog at Google's rival blog site, Blogspot, and is trying to move his older entries to it.
His form of protest: keeping his AOL Journal open to speak out against the ads on it.
"It's using their platform against them," he said.