Web Syndication For The Masses

Last week, we presented some of the marketing and economic arguments for the next frontier in online branding: web syndication. This week, we examine some of the advances in the industry and how they will enable more web publishers to implement web syndication strategies.

XML to the Rescue

Approved last year as an industry standard, XML is a set of syntactical rules and structure for representing complex collections of data. If two organizations use software that adheres to a common XML standard, they can share and exchange data of virtually any kind or format — hence providing a robust, flexible framework for web syndication.

There are many proposed dialects of XML, each designed to address the specific needs of a given application or industry. At least two such dialects directly apply to web syndication: Information and Content Exchange, or ICE, and Web Distributed Data eXchange, or WDDX. We’ll discuss each from a high-level business perspective while sparing you the insufferable acronym-speak.

(What the industry trades won’t tell you, however, is that you won’t need to know anything about XML other than it exists and that it works — just as you don’t need to know about fuel combustion to drive a car.)

Vanilla ICE, ICE Baby

Created by a consortium of major industry players — including Adobe, Microsoft, and Sun — ICE was designed to handle the trusted exchange of content between businesses. ICE-compliant products promise to support the transparent exchange of Internet content and a number of additional features, including contact management and content redistribution rules and permissions.

One of the leading proponents of the ICE specification, Vignette, plans to release their ICE-compliant Syndication Server later this year. With this release, Vignette claims that ICE will help level the playing field so smaller players can create affiliate networks that were once the sole domain of large web sites.

While a product like Syndication Server eliminates many of the technical barriers for smaller web publishers, it’s proposed $50,000 price tag doesn’t exactly open a lot of doors either. Instead, it will likely streamline operations for larger publishers and provide greater syndication access to mid-sized players.

The multitude of small players — often resource-poor yet rich with great, narrow content — likely won’t be helped. The problem with ICE is that it’s designed with the industrial-strength content publisher in mind. For the small-time publisher, ICE can be a little like dealing with NASA.

“Got anything a little smaller?”

Sometimes if all you have is a headache, you don’t want to take one of those all-in-one medications that also suppresses your cough, clears your sinuses, kills your athlete’s foot, and promotes additional limb growth.

That’s the principle Jerry Allaire of Allaire Corp. placed behind his creation of WDDX. Originally developed for Allaire’s ColdFusion server and since promoted as an open standard, WDDX attempts to solve the more general problem of exchanging data on the web without ICE’s excess baggage.

A simpler standard might enable more small businesses to enter the syndication market, but it’s unclear whether Allaire is positioning WDDX for web syndication or as a more general server technology. Jerry seems to want it both ways — saying that WDDX is a dessert topping in an interview, but calling it a floor wax in a company press release.

Because WDDX has not been submitted as a formal standard, it’s also unclear if many software products and web sites will adopt WDDX.

Web Syndication Intermediaries

Syndication intermediaries are the primary alternative to software-based solutions. San Francisco-based iSyndicate, for example, can provide headlines, articles, newsletters, images, and even software to participating web sites. Services and fees are divided among two different lines.

The first is a free headline distribution service that charges the content provider for click-throughs. Here the content distributors pay for qualified leads to their web sites. The other service distributes full-text articles, and the economics are largely reversed: Content providers are reimbursed and the hosting web site must pay a subscription fee.

While syndication intermediaries can provide a variety of useful supporting services — including staging services for content screening, traffic reports, and content indexing for easy searching — syndicating web sites must still provide content that conforms to a few basic formats supported by the intermediary. Furthermore, web sites seeking to complement their offerings with syndicated content are also constrained to what the intermediary has to offer.

Some experts question the viability of these intermediaries with the anticipated rise of XML-based software solutions. These intermediaries have at least taken up a defensive stance, dismissing any perceived threat with claims to be fully buzzword-compliant themselves in the coming year.

Conclusions

 

Would your business gain from distributing some of its content and/or features to other strategic web sites? Most providers syndicate only a portion of their content to build their brand while leaving users an incentive to visit their web mothership. Ultimately syndication is most often a means for driving traffic to a main web site.

Or instead, from the other side of the syndication table, would augmenting your site with best-of-breed, vertical content offerings improve its overall effectiveness? Strong, relevant content can enhance the stickiness of your site and the monetization of its users. Yet there’s a fine line between successful integration and the brand discord characteristic of MSN’s or Lycos’ “FrankenPortal” approach to web networks.

We’re just starting to see the initial signs of a massive land grab for online real estate — the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Homestead Act of 1862. It’s still very early in the online branding game, and much of the online territories remain rough and unsettled. Therefore now is the time to think about a web syndication strategy for your business.

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