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Apple links iTunes to social networking through Bebo

Apple Inc. has made one of its first overt attempts to tap into web youth culture, establishing links between its iTunes Store and European social networking site Bebo.

The Financial Times reports that a deal with will let the site's nearly 9 million users in Ireland and the UK jump directly to Apple's online music store through embedded links in the profiles of musicians, providing a shortcut that displays their albums and songs on the iTunes Store.

Apple's deal will potentially give it access to as many as 500,000 musicians who maintain profiles on the page and will also serve as a vehicle for pushing new artists for both companies. A free Bebo single of the week will operate separately from the official iTunes release to encourage visiting Bebo itself and buying the music. Mercury artist Amy Macdonald will be the first to have a free Bebo single, according to the report.

The iPod maker is said to consider the move experimental and a means of encouraging legal downloads by putting them a click away on the artist page. If it proves successful, the Bebo project may expand to the full 33 million international Bebo users.

An incidental benefit of the move, however, is exposure to a younger market of web visitors that it has known in the past. Almost a third of youth between 16 and 24 years old visit at least one social networking site occasionally and will likely see the iTunes links if they visit to explore music. Most of that same audience is also especially active on peer-to-peer networks trading illegal copies, giving Apple an extra incentive to target their social sites.

The decision is the first of its kind for Apple, which has largely remained absent from social networking sites. Although the California-based firm has already established a system for linking directly to artists, albums, or songs from websites, the web referral method has so far been used for general ad campaigns independent of any one website.

Although easily recognized on the Internet, Apple has been relatively slow to embrace social networking and other Web 2.0 elements. Facebook recently put in place a development kit that lets Amazon and other online retailers embed store-related links in member profiles, and European carriers Orange as well as Vodafone have both outpaced Apple in striking deals for mobile access to Bebo.

Apple will begin to learn how well its name carries forward to a younger Internet community on Wednesday, when Bebo will reportedly start hosting the British and Irish iTunes Store links.