Should All Sites Syndicate?

Online publishers are watching the rise of RSS/Atom feeds with a wary eye. The general release of Yahoo’s feed reader promises to bring online syndication to a wider audience, and many think MSN and America Online will soon follow suit. This raises the stakes for sites that have not yet solidified a strategy, but it also elevates their worry that the adoption of this technology is outpacing the emergence of business models to support it.

The news of Web feeds on My Yahoo last week was met by other doings in the online syndication space. Aggregators Bloglines and NewsGator have both entered partnerships they say will improve the efficiency of RSS and Atom-based feeds. And Pheedo, which is developing ad products for the feed environment, acquired blog ad exchange Blogsnob.

Certainly the enhancements in MyYahoo will raise the profile of Web feeds and perhaps even “bring RSS to the masses,” in the words of Yahoo blogger and engineer Jeremy Zawodny. RSS is now widely seen among geeks and weblog enthusiasts as the ideal way to read content online. But are other publishers playing along? Will they?

Numerous publishers of scale are now using syndicated feeds to grow their audience. Yet most are not. News site Topix.net reports only 7 percent of the sites it crawls have Web feeds. “I’d estimate that only a few hundred of the top 3,000 newspapers we crawl have RSS support,” posted Rich Skrenta, Topix.net CEO, on the company’s site recently.

For those who are publishing, the feeds are beginning to make impact, however. WSJ Online, Forbes.com and NYTimes.com have all started publishing Web feeds, and the uptake is strong. NYTimes.com, for one, is reporting just under two million monthly page views based on click-throughs from its feeds.

“It’s a good way to attract and retain an important user base for us, which is the news hungry audience,” said Christine Mohan, associate director of product development and industry relations at NYTimes.com. “It’s moving out of the early adopter phase. Certainly [the release of] My Yahoo opens RSS and news feeds to a larger base. And it’s a great way for us to drive traffic in a very low-cost efficient mechanism.”

To Vin Crosbie, the argument for growing audience through RSS is dubious. Crosbie is managing partner at consulting firm Digital Deliverance and an expert on the monetization of Web publishing.

“There are two different strategies,” he said. “One is ‘Anything we can do to get our content out there helps.’ Any publishers embracing it are doing so for that purpose.”

“However, there’s a countervailing theory by other publishers saying unless we can make money on it we’re not going to do it. All we’re doing is giving away content for free.”

The handful of regional papers publishing feeds includes The State of South Carolina, The Indianapolis Star and The Baltimore Sun. Their adoption tends to be a bit uneasy. The popularity of Web syndication among consumers of content is part of the problem. The format has clear advantages over email and traditional surfing behavior (It’s clean, spam-free and requires less navigation), but publishers who play along are losing impressions even as they gain audience. At least that’s their fear.

Steve Yelvington is an Internet strategist with Morris Communications, which owns 26 daily papers in the U.S.

“Frequent users and occasional users have different traits,” Yelvington wrote in a recent post to Poynter’s Online News Listserv. “One apparent trait of the frequent user is a heightened interest in the content of the site. If it turns out that frequent users adopt an RSS feed while occasional users ignore it, offering the feed may have zero positive impact on the [occasional users]. Indeed, it may simply enable frequent users to ignore parts of the site they previously might have experienced.”

He continued, “Making an RSS feed is trivial. Making an RSS feed that has positive measurable results is not trivial. Many months ago I put forth appeals for persuasive evidence of an RSS program that makes good economic sense for news publishers. I challenged a lot of RSS fans. I had some interesting conversations as a result, but no one had any hard data that would demonstrate the value of RSS.”

Gawker Media publisher Nick Denton recently put it to ClickZ more bluntly: “We just publish RSS to get more traffic. There’s no easy way to sell advertising in feeds.”

On the contrary, it’s simple to insert ads and sponsorships in syndicated feeds. It’s just the text ads lack the creative punch the banners, pop-ups and rich placements publishers are used to having at their disposal. And since sites don’t own the aggregator platform, the message may not feel as branded.

Advocates of Web syndication believe richer ad products will eventually present themselves. Until then, the already-popular solution to this publisher concern is to force click-throughs by limiting feed content. Publish only excerpts and interested readers will navigate to your site, says Greg Reinacker, founder and CTO of desktop feed aggregator NewsGator.

“That leads to more quality traffic,” Reinacker said. “RSS makes it possible for publishers to have a more consistent conversation with their users. People are afraid the headline is enough; they’re getting all they need there and not clicking through.”

Of course, content consumers tend to hate the headline-tease-link formulation so common in the email world. To that, Nick Bradbury, creator of RSS/Atom aggregator FeedDemon, says “tough luck.”

“The downside is a lot of people would prefer to have the full content of the story in the feed itself. But those people probably don’t make their living from ads,” Bradbury said.

“Look at the history of online and email,” said Bill Flitter, VP of marketing for Pheedo. “We could only do text in email on day one. Now look what we can do inside an email. We can embed audio, flash, HTML, track it, monitor it, serve ads. We’re going to be doing that same stuff in RSS some day.”

Flitter believes publishers will eventually find ways to team with aggregators to develop ad products that will work in the feed environment. But in the short term that’s not the case. The feed format by and large eliminates the ads publishers have worked so hard to package and sell to marketers. Text ads are the exception.

While they wait for ad products to emerge within the RSS environment, publishers are facing an ancillary bandwidth problem. Desktop aggregators are pinging Web servers for new content millions of times per hour.

The recent partnerships launched by NewsGator and Bloglines should help reduce the tax on bandwidth. No longer will individual desktop clients frequently scan sites for updated feeds. Rather, Bloglines will tap those sites for new content, which will then be cached to its master database and passed on to desktop-based aggregators.

The bandwidth issue is one more hurdle the RSS/Atom formats must overcome before persuading small- to mid-sized publishers to jump on the RSS/Atom feed bandwagon. The New York Times and the BBC, two of the poster children of publisher-side feed syndication, are doing well; but they’re not representative of publishers at large.

Vin Crosbie: “The New York Times is certainly atypical among newspapers in terms of the traffic it gets and the staff it devotes. If it works for the Times, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for the Reporter Dispatch or the Greenwich Times. And the BBC isn’t a typical case because it’s a not-for-profit and doesn’t take advertising. When the average publication or newspaper can profitably use RSS, then there’s a business.”

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