SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - MySpace launched a new version of its website centered around music and entertainment, as the social networking company attempts to regain its former appeal in a market it helped create.
MySpace Chief Executive Mike Jones said that News Corp-owned MySpace is no longer seeking to compete head-on with social networking company Facebook, and is recasting itself as a complimentary service that he hopes the 35-year-old-and-under crowd will flock to stay abreast of the hottest music and videos.
With traffic to MySpace declining and the company rocked by succession of management changes and layoffs during the past two years, the re-launch of the website represents a critical step in efforts to rejuvenate an asset once considered central to News Corp's online business.
"Most investors have written off MySpace now," said Richard Greenfield, an analyst at BTIG said on Tuesday. Whether MySpace can rebuild its buzz in the highly competitive and fast-changing Web market is an open question, he said.
News Corp bought MySpace in 2005 for $580 million, at a time when the social networking service was at the height of its popularity.
But MySpace, which says it has between 125 million and 130 million active monthly users, has been eclipsed by Facebook, which has more than 500 million users. News Corp does not disclose financial information about MySpace.
There have been media reports that News Corp is interested in selling MySpace, though executives at News Corp have repeatedly maintained that that is not the case.
MySpace's new incarnation leans heavily on the company's strong heritage in music -- the company already has partnerships with the four major record labels -- and seeks to supplement it with content about movies, television and video games. Visitors to the site can subscribe to news feeds about favorite bands and actors, as well as follow other MySpace users that the service recommends as authorities about particular types of music or other topics.
MySpace also has changed the look of its site: Users will still be able to customize their personal pages, but to a lesser extent. Personal pages will have a consistent placement of on-screen navigation buttons, for example. Critics said the old site was difficult to navigate because of the inconsistent appearance of the members' pages. CEO Jones told Reuters on Monday this has hurt "user engagement."
A beta, or test version of the new site will be available to some users on Wednesday, with the site due to be available to all users by the end of November.
MySpace began the redesign of the site eight months ago, at a time when Jones and Jason Hirschhorn had taken over as co-Presidents, following the departure of Chief Executive Owen Van Natta. In June, Hirschhorn left the company to "pursue other opportunities," according to a MySpace spokesperson.
A 2006 search advertising deal with Google Inc that guarantees MySpace $300 million a year in revenue expired in August, and was extended for one month, according to a person familiar with the talks. A MySpace spokesperson said on Tuesday that the company had no update to provide on the deal.
While social networking services like Twitter and Facebook are growing bigger every month, MySpace has seen its number of worldwide unique visitors decline every month since March, according to web analytics firm comScore.
MySpace said it expects the new version of the site to boost the total number of users that visit the site and the time they spend on the site.
Jones said that he believed the majority, or "close to the majority" of MySpace's current audience belongs to the so-called Generation Y, the 35-year-old and under demographic that MySpace will focus on. But it's unclear how many of MySpace's older users will stick around after the site changes.
Jones acknowledged that there could be some "noise in our usage patterns" after the switch, as users adjusted to the new site, though he was unsure whether the company might see a near-term increase or decrease in its audience size or usage.
Wedbush Securities analyst Lou Kerner, speaking generally about MySpace's previously discussed plan to recast the company around music and entertainment, said that focusing on a narrow segment of the market could allow the company to find a new life in shadow of Facebook.
"There are other social networking companies that are still doing well, that have found niches. The most obvious is LinkedIn, which continues to grow rapidly," Kerner said, referring to the social network devoted to online professionals.
(Reporting by Alexei Oreskovic; editing by Carol Bishopric)