As Facebook Looms, Meebo's Bar Gets A Big Speed Boost, Shares Strong Growth Figures

To most people, online chat service Meebo is best known for its multiprotocol webchat, but for over a year now its primary focus has been the Meebo Bar — a persistent toolbar that third party websites can embed on their pages to facilitate sharing through services like Facebook, Twitter, and email. That bar now reaches nearly 150 million people per month through dozens of large third party integrations. Last week CEO Seth Sternberg swung by TechCrunch headquarters to discuss the current status of the Bar, and how it’s turning a single ad unit into some serious revenue.

We last did a deep dive on the progress of the Meebo Bar in December, when Quantcast figures showed it reaching nearly 100 million unique visitors across Meebo partner sites. That number on Quantcast is now up to nearly 150 million, and since August, comScore says that Meebo’s uniques are up nearly 300%. In terms of functionality the Meebo Bar hasn’t changed much since I last spoke to Sternberg, but the amount of money it pulls in certainly has: Sternberg says that the Bar is doing 4x revenue growth year over year, and that revenue is 4x right now what it was in January. In other words, things are picking up quickly (though it’s worth pointing out that Meebo declined to share any concrete revenue figures).

The monetization effort is built around a single, interactive ad unit on the left side of the Meebo Bar that performs unusually well, with users clicking on the ad on over 1% of impressions. When a user clicks on the ad, an interactive, rich media overlay appears on the screen. Here, too, Meebo sees very strong engagement: once activated, the average time spent with one of these ads is 50-60 seconds. In light of its success, Meebo has built out a sales team dedicated to this one ad unit. The company has grown to 115 employees (up from 70 in December), with much of the growth in direct sales and brands.

Along with the new growth stats, Sternberg also shared that Meebo has recently rewritten its social bar to address the slowdown issues commonly associated with third party plugins. Sternberg explains that many large publishers find that the third party plugins they integrate to boost functionality and sharing have the unwanted side effect of slowing down load times (the more plugins you have, the slower you get). The new version of the Meebo Bar, which will be rolling out of the course of the next week, has had its download size reduced by over 50% (it’s now under 100K), with pings of less than 10ms.

A New Challenger Approaches

Up until now, the Meebo Bar hasn’t had too much serious competition. Sure, some larger publishers have created their own bars, and there are certainly other third party alternatives, but Meebo has cemented its position as the web’s most popular social toolbar. The landscape may change soon, though: at f8 Facebook announced plans to launch its own social bar, which will allow third party sites to quickly integrate a ‘Like’ button and Facebook Chat.

Sternberg says that Facebook and Meebo will definitely be jockeying for the same screen real-estate on  third party sites, but he thinks that it can beat Facebook on openness. He explains that Meebo’s Bar has support for a broad number of networks like MSN, MySpace, Twitter, and email; Facebook may well only offer Facebook (and probably email) integration. He also points out that Meebo’s bar is more customizable, so publishers can integrate their own applications or Twitter streams.

And his points probably aren’t just spin. Given the ubiquity of Facebook and the rapid adoption of its ‘Like’ buttons, there’s no doubt that Facebook will pose a serious challenge to Meebo. But publishers don’t stand to gain from giving Facebook so much power over their traffic and user experience, either, so they may well turn to the more flexible alternative. Then again, Facebook may have a way to offer engaging social features in its toolbar that its competitors can’t, which would make the situation all the more interesting.

We’ll have to wait until Facebook’s social bar is actually released to find out — despite a preview nearly three months ago at f8, it’s still nowhere to be seen.