RSS: Not Just for Bloggers Anymore

The other day, I told someone I’d just met I worked for the publishing division of Jupitermedia. His reaction made me feel I’d stepped back in time. He was bemused a company that operates Web sites and email newsletters would call itself a “publisher.” I didn’t know anyone thought that way anymore — and this was a guy at a tech-related trade show.

Well, I hate to break it to this fellow, but it’s time to expand the definition of publishing still further. If stories in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal are any indication, RSS — the XML-based syndication format — is going mainstream.

Already, the New York Times offers 19 different news feeds, the BBC offers at least 46 (one’s entirely dedicated to Harry Potter news), and, of course, ClickZ has feeds for its News and Stats sections (more to come!). Your friendly neighborhood blogger likely has an RSS feed, too. The blogging community has largely driven the renaissance of this nearly decade-old format.

The proliferation of news search sites, such as Google News, Yahoo News, and MSN’s Newsbot, are also driving RSS’s popularity. Want your site’s headlines indexed on these popular aggregators? RSS is the way to accomplish that.

Not to mention the expanding universe of news readers — the software used for subscribing to and reading feeds. Just this week, Terra Lycos and Dogpile introduced new toolbars, both of which include RSS news readers. Yahoo is beta testing an RSS news reader incorporated into its My Yahoo section. Its news search allows for easy addition of new feeds to the module.

Not all is rosy with RSS, however. Though it’s an easy (not to mention spam-free) way of delivering content to subscribers, it’s not quite ready for primetime. Bandwidth is a concern. Some news readers update automatically, whether or not the user is reading them. That means servers are pinged far more often than necessary. Given that cost, is it worth it? Probably so, if a couple conditions are met:

  • If people actually click on the headlines and blurbs to go to your site, thereby allowing an ad to be delivered

  • If you deliver ads in the RSS feed itself and can monetize the feed that way

Alas, both propositions are fraught with technical considerations. It’s tough to track whether an RSS feed is being read because of the aforementioned auto-pinging situation. Then there’s the difficulty of tracking clicks and readership brought to a Web site. On top of that, there’s the challenge of tracking advertising. Thankfully, RSS seems to be evolving to meet those challenges due to the hard work of a few companies.

The most all-encompassing solution, or at least all-encompassing thinking, is FeedBurner from start-up Burning Door. The company has chosen a wise path, designating its current product “pre-alpha” to indicate it’s nowhere near where its designers would like it to be. But it’s still pretty cool.

FeedBurner takes existing RSS feeds and modifies them in ways that help publishers meet all sorts of goals. A stats function rewrites links in a feed to allow tracking when someone clicks on a link. (A feature IMN also offers its clients.) Another function lets publishers ensure feed readers visit the originating site — to allow ads to be served, for example — before they click off to other content that’s linked to from the feed. An Amazon-links feature automatically appends an Amazon affiliate ID when links go to merchandise at Amazon.com. Other features change the feed into different XML formats: one Web browsers can read, another for mobile devices.

“The problem with this stuff is that publishers shouldn’t have to care about this. Just like they don’t have to care about HTML anymore,” Dick Costolo, one of the founders of Burning Door, told me.

Costolo sees the company as a sort of Vignette StoryServer for RSS, a technology enabler that lets editors and publishers go about their business without concern for behind-the-scenes technical matters.

FeedBurner doesn’t currently offer any advertising-related functions, but Costolo says the technology — launched only two weeks ago — is headed in that direction. It’s a touchy subject because of the cultural factor. RSS became popular in part because it isn’t burdened with some of the issues email and the Web face, such as spam and pop-up ads. Ad support must be integrated with care.

“There are right ways to do advertising in syndication, and there are lots and lots of wrong ways,” said Costolo.

Most people who pontificate on the future of ads in RSS think pay per click (PPC) will develop first, partly because of cultural factors and partly because of technical issues.

It’s already beginning to happen. A start-up called RSSAds is working on a PPC ad network for RSS feeds. Meanwhile, site-specific contextual listings company IndustryBrains is syndicating ads into its publisher clients’ RSS feeds.

RSS isn’t quite at the WebTrends/StoryServer/DoubleClick DART stage yet, but it’s good to know it’s getting there.

Get ready.

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