Technology

Bebo pins hopes on site refresh

Bebo profile page
Image caption Changes include a wider range of emoticons

Bebo, once a leading social networking site has undergone its biggest redesign in three years in a bid to retain and attract users.

The company fell into neglect after it was bought by AOL for $850m (£515m) in 2008.

It was resold last year for just $10m (£6m) to private equity firm Criterion Capital Partners.

Now under new ownership, Bebo is trying to compete with Facebook and its near 600m users.

And while some have consigned it to also-ran status, the site claims to still have 110 million members with an average age of 17.

Bebo's refresh is similar to that undertaken by Myspace in 2010, when the site sought to reposition itself as a more niche product, rather than direct competitor to Facebook.

Just as Myspace went back to its roots, focussing on music fans, Bebo aims to capitalise on its youthful following.

Emotional

The site has added new features which it hopes will allow users to express themselves in different ways.

That includes the ability to use emoticons that say "Cool, Funny, Sorry or OMG".

Kevin Bachus, chief product officer for Bebo and also one of the co-founders of Microsoft's XBox, claimed that features such as Facebook's "like" button are too limited.

"One of the things that struck me about other social networks is saying thanks to everyone sending condolences on say my mother's death. Someone saying he "likes" this is limiting and a bit strange.

"What we have is a good foundation we intend to build on. This is the first step on the path to express things about emotions and let friends interact," said Mr Bachus.

Other changes include a more prominent notifications menu, changes to the profile feed and a new feed highlighting activity for each individual user.

Entertainment

Bebo has also recently added video chat, a games platform, universal instant messaging and Facebook Connect integration.

The latter underlines the extent to which Bebo no longer sees itself as being in direct competition with Facebook.

"When AOL bought the company it was unclear to me what their strategy with Bebo was and I don't think they ever really worked that out or articulated a vision to make it long lasting," said Akash Garg, chief technology officer and former co-founder of social networking company Hi5,

"Bebo didn't get the attention or the feature sets it needed under AOL and I saw this as an opportunity to develop some new ones and energise and reinvigorate the user base," he added.

Mr Garg said he was confident that the new look would help bring the site back into play.

"We are trying to understand the core needs of our users and it is something we need to solve in this highly competitive space," said Mr Akash.

He added that the culture at the company had shifted back to that of a new business.

"Every company in this space has to view themselves as a start-up. There is no such thing as a safe position," he said.

Before Christmas Bebo's co-founder Michael Birch returned as an adviser and investor.

Michael Jackson, formerly a BBC One and Channel 4 controller has also invested in the company and been involved in the revamp.

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