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NEW YORK (AP) _ AOL splashes images of Bollywood celebrities on its new home page for India. MySpace accepts sign-ups from mobile phones in Japan. Google departs from its customarily spartan home page and peppers its Korean site with colorful, animated icons.

As major U.S. Internet companies stake their ground abroad in anticipation of the next billion people coming online – and the advertising revenue they might generate – the flags they are planting aren’t the Stars and Stripes.

Companies are trying to expand globally without seeming to, designing market-specific services with customized features that reflect differences in connection speeds, payment options and attitudes toward sex or violence.

The stakes are high as the United States faces a weakening economy and a slowing of online ad growth.

And the opportunities are large. People in two populous countries, India and China, are just getting online. The research firm IDC projects worldwide Internet ad spending at nearly $107 billion in 2011, compared with $65 billion this year.

But getting it right will be tough. American companies that merely translate their U.S.-focused sites into other languages risk losing to homegrown businesses that can better respond to cultural nuances.

Google Inc. discovered that in South Korea and China, where it initially held its minimalist approach, only to see local rivals thrive by acknowledging their users’ preference for sites rich with entertainment and visual complexity.

“A lot of times, the U.S. companies, because they were successful in the U.S., they tend to repeat their current business models,” said Tian X. Hou, a Pali Research analyst who follows China. “Most of the time, that doesn’t work.”

Cho Ko-un, 29, a graduate student sitting in a cybercafe in Seoul, South Korea, finds Google good for English and academic research, but local portals like Naver and Daum better for Korean-language information. Naver, for instance, has forums for users to answer one another’s questions, which proved helpful when Koreans couldn’t find a site in their native tongue.

“I feel amazed and surprised when the exact question I am trying to ask … the proper answer on that is already uploaded,” said Kim Seung-ho, a 32-year-old government employee.

Tom Anderson, co-founder of MySpace, said dominance in one market means nothing as the company expands to nearly 30 other countries and regions. He said local incumbents have a key advantage because “it’s difficult to get people to change their behavior.”

MySpace is nonetheless trying.

In South Korea, MySpace offers an exclusive “minilog” feature for youths to jot down everyday thoughts and feelings. In mobile-heavy Japan, people can sign up for an account directly from a phone; elsewhere, you need a desktop computer. MySpace tweaked its Chinese site to generate new windows with every click, in deference to local user preferences.

The News Corp.-owned company also is exploring low-bandwidth versions – perhaps with fewer graphics or less audio – for India and Latin America, where connection speeds tend to be slower.

AOL, meanwhile, has launched about two dozen international sites over the past 18 months. As the one-time Internet access powerhouse transforms itself into an advertising business, executives decided to push into several emerging markets that they knew wouldn’t pay off for another few years.

“Our goal is to plant the flag, to be present, said Maneesh Dhir, AOL’s India-based international chief. “Then you work to grow that business.”

In each market, AOL partners with local content providers.

The Indian portal, for instance, is heavy on Bollywood films, covering their stars as fiercely as American sites follow Lindsay Lohan. Instead of baseball, the Indian portal covers cricket, with schedules, team profiles and an online fantasy game.

AOL, a unit of Time Warner Inc., also customized its popular AIM instant-messaging service for India and other markets with heavy usage of text messaging on cell phones. Messages sent over AIM are automatically converted into phone texts, and vice versa.

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