Is RSS the Answer to the Spam Crisis?

  |  September 1, 2003   |  Comments

FEATURE: As legitimate online publishers struggle to get e-mail newsletters into clogged inboxes, RSS is fast emerging as the answer to the spam nightmare.

With scam artists, spammers and virus writers all using the email inbox as their main target, email has become a daily nightmare for legitimate online publishers and marketers as they cope with mail filters, blacklists and irate subscribers.

Enter RSS , the XML syndication format that allows publishers to shuttle content to news aggregators and avoid the email chaos altogether.

"E-mail is dead, period," declares Chris Pirillo, the Internet entrepreneur who distributes about 400,000 email newsletters weekly. "I don't care what kind of legislation goes through, people aren't signing up for newsletters anymore. People are assuming that every email publisher is a spammer."

Pirillo's Lockergnome has begun actively directing subscribers away from email subscriptions, touting RSS (Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication) instead as a foolproof way to avoid the spam bottleneck.

RSS, first developed by Netscape in the 1990s, allows newsreaders and aggregators to scrape links and article summaries for syndication. The technology, which is built into most blog publishing tools, is used primarily to syndicate news content but many companies are slowly turning to RSS to update events listings, project updates and corporate announcements. (See RSS: Your Gateway To News & Blog Content).

Pirillo, who estimates that barely 5 percent of Lockergnome's subscribers are actually reading the email newsletters (after bounces and filtering rules take effect), argues that RSS "is definitely the answer" because it shifts the power of subscription to the end-user and offers a foolproof way around the support issues associated with email publishing.

Pirillo's embrace of RSS as a replacement for email newsletters is quickly gaining momentum. At the height of the spread of the Sobig.F virus two weeks ago, PaidContent.org publisher Rafat Ali suspended publication of his daily email newsletter and opted for an RSS version instead.

Ali, who has been forced to misspell certain words in his publication to avoid email filtering rules, believes a dedicated RSS version of the email newsletter will become standard once publishers (and subscribers) see the value in using the aggregator.

About.com's email guide, Heinz Tschabitscher, agrees. In a note titled RSS Feeds are the Better Email Newsletters, Tschabitscher touts RSS as the bona-fide answer to spam. "The best thing about RSS is that if you subscribe to an RSS feed, you only get what you want. If you tell the feed reader to stop collecting a site's feed, it will stop. And there's no spam," he declared.

Nick Bradbury, best known as the creator of the HTML editor HomeSite (which was acquired by Allaire in 1996 and is now owned by Macromedia), has also hopped on the RSS bandwagon in a big way after realizing the "limitations" of email as a way to communicate with subscribers.

Bradbury, who develops and markets TopStyle, a cascading style sheet (CSS), XHTML and HTML editor for Windows, told internetnews.com he ditched email as a software support tool and integrated a blog into the TopStyle software to take advantage of the RSS communication mechanism.

"Everytime I'd send out an email to people who subscribed to my list, I'd get thousands of bounces. The filters were just a mess to deal with. It was a customer service nightmare," Bradbury explains. Eventually, with a blog integrated into TopStyle, the company could use the built-in RSS feed to push information on software upgrades to customers.

"The main benefit of RSS is the one-way communication. I see RSS changing the way publishers communicate with readers because it provides a secure channel...No one has to worry about spam," Bradbury explains.

EMBRACING THE AGGREGATOR

In addition to TopStyle, Bradbury is now focusing development efforts on FeedDemon, an RSS reader/aggregator for Windows. FeedDemon, which is among the more popular RSS aggregators available, has begun to pre-load news feeds into the client to help with the evangelization of RSS.

"I wanted to build something that could turn people onto RSS without the technical complications," Bradbury says. FeedDemon, which is in beta, is slated for release sometime this month.

FeedDemon will be entering an increasingly crowded RSS aggregator market that includes the open-source FeedReader and NewzCrawler (Windows); AmphetaDesk and Radio Userland (multi-platform) or NetNewsWire (Mac).

Also gaining popularity is the Web-based aggregator, which does not require an application download. Online aggregators include Bloglines, MyWireService and Feed-Me.

Another major player in the aggregation space is NewsGator, which integrates with Microsoft Outlook to turn the email client into a dual-purpose application.

NewsGator, which also grabs RSS feeds NNTP (Usenet) newsgroups and automatically integrates the news items into Microsoft Outlook folders, recently inked distribution deals with Primedia-owned About.com and technology publisher IDG to pre-load hundreds of RSS feeds into the $29-per-copy software.

About.com and IDG are just the latest online publishers to embrace RSS. The New York Times Digital (NYTD) has already partnered with Radio Userland on RSS feed distribution while the BBC, Rolling Stones and, more recently, Yahoo have all rolled out RSS feeds for end-users.

However, despite the momentum of RSS, skeptics remain. SitePoint editor Matt Mickiewicz concedes RSS is a big winner for end-users but argues that "it needs to evolve further for publishers to take it seriously."

Mickiewicz says RSS was never intended to syndicate anything besides headlines with descriptions and warned that an RSS feed can lead to bandwidth wastage. "If you're on a shared account or your bandwidth is restricted, it can mean a big hit to your hosting bill. Imagine, 100,000 subscribers checking your RSS feed 4-6 times a day for updates!," Mickiewicz wrote in SitePoint Editor's Note.

He also claims it's impossible to know how many people regularly receive and read a publisher's RSS feed and argued that there are limitations in the way RSS can display and track advertising. "From a 'looks' standpoint, RSS is a step backwards for HTML newsletters. While images can be included, you have no control over their positioning," Mickiewicz added.

Immediately after the appearance of the SitePoint editor's note, the aggressive pro-RSS lobby, led by Lockergnome's Pirillo picked apart the complaints, arguing that RSS offers "salvation" from the spam crisis.

Still, outside of bloggers and a few early adopters, RSS newsreaders have yet to win mainstream adoption. But, that's bound to change very soon, insists Robert Scoble, technology evangelist for Longhorn at Microsoft and an RSS believer.

Scoble believes consumer demand will push mainstream acceptance of RSS more than even a powerhouse like Microsoft bundling an aggregator into Windows. "It takes a killer application to come along to really drive mass-market adoption. So far we've seen uses for people who really want to watch a large number of sites, but most consumers don't get their information from the Web," he explained.

Scoble, an active blogger, says the growth of RSS will "a slow and gradual process" as more and more sites that average users roll out RSS feeds.

"Already I can see a pretty sizeable shift in how people read the information I'm providing. In the future, I see whole new types of Internet applications that'll use XML feeds rather than the HTML files that Web browsers traditionally look at," Scoble added.

"Does it matter to developers? Absolutely. In the future the browser will be the 'best of breed' Internet client. Users will have little apps like the Klip Folio that'll help them stay on top of the information they care about most. Developers need XML file formats to really provide the best possible experience. RSS delivers that.

"For participating in conversational networks, RSS can't be beat and will only continue to get more popular," Scoble added.

In the midst of the heady growth of RSS, there is controversial move to write a new specification for the syndication format because "RSS has been kludged and pushed into this world, but it doesn't really fit."

That project has led to bitter acrimony in the content aggregations space but Lockergnome's Pirillo believes publishers shouldn't worry about competing formats. "Ultimately, the aggregator is going to decide. If it comes to a point where one format is better than the other, the aggregator will support it. The aggregators will support both formats anyway so it's a moot point," Pirillo said.

Microsoft's Scoble described the spec controversy as "an annoyance" but agrees it won't hurt consumer adoption. "If anything, we may get a whole new range of news readers and capabilities, and that'll be a good thing."

A good thing is exactly what online publishers are desperate to find.

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