RSS and Blogs
Back in October of 2003, when we first started building FeedBurner with hammer and chisel, RSS was, for many people, synonymous with blogs. Now that it’s almost 2006, RSS is, for many people, synonymous with blogs. We still see quotes in major media that conflate blogs and RSS as if they were inextricably bound together. A, therefore B. Blogs, therefore RSS. In early 2003, it was probably accurate to say that almost all blogs had feeds and almost all feeds were derived from a blog. Today, however, while almost all blogs still have feeds, there are innumerable feeds that are unrelated to blogs. Commercial publishers have embraced feeds wholeheartedly; most web services and many search engines now provide subscribed results; and podcasts and videocasts are entirely feed-based while not necessarily tied to blogs.
Why is this important? Our customers are publishers of all shapes and sizes. We will be successful if we provide services to our customers that best leverage the power of the feed in the broadest possible way. By understanding this emerging world of feed ubiquity, we can provide the most powerful suite of tools to all of our publishers. As we have grown to achieve critical mass with bloggers, podcasters, and now commercial publishers, we are also in the unique position to deliver tools that help each of our three customer types benefit from the combined market authority of the others. Everybody wins.
Start with the Benefits
Feeds provide three critical benefits to any digital media:
- A notification mechanism for updates to a specific channel of content
- The ability to subscribe to content, creating a persistent link between publisher and subscriber
- A semi-structured version of the content
Some of these benefits are provided by the feed itself, and some are a function of the software built to take advantage of feeds (e.g. aggregators).
The first benefit, a notification mechanism for content updates, was an early driver of RSS adoption by visitors to tens or hundreds of blogs. Instead of checking which hundred had been updated each morning, consumers could simply subscribe once to the feeds that interest them most and go to their aggregator to see when updates had been made. Notification via feed delivery has helped drive subscriber adoption.
As RSS and Atom feeds have been adopted outside the blogosphere, the second benefit of feeds has become a powerful driver of adoption on the publisher side of the equation by establishing and strengthening the bond between subscribers and publishers. Many months ago, we were speaking with a commercial publisher and one of the people in the room asked, „Why should we distribute our content via RSS if we have no idea how we’re going to monetize it?“ Another person from the same organization answered, „Would you rather have visitors or subscribers?“ We love a rhetorical Socratic dialogue just as much as the next person, so we’ve adopted this response as FeedBurner’s theme: Publishers value subscribers. Services that promote, facilitate and measure subscription are important. This is FeedBurner.
The third benefit that feeds offer is structure. Today, feeds are largely considered the output of content management systems. You create an article, an Atom/RSS version of that article gets generated, and that’s it. Visitors to the site see an html view of the content, and subscribers to the feed get some rendering of the same content (derived from the feed) in their aggregator. There is no feedback loop to the site from the feed.
Leverage the Structure as Input
Since the feed data is semi-structured, it is possible to enhance the feed with 3rd party services in a generalized way. Meta-data can be readily incorporated and other content can be spliced into the feed based on easily parsed feed elements. To illustrate this point, FeedBurner has been providing a number of basic feed enhancement services like meta-data additions (Media RSS, iTunes tags) and content splicing (links and photos) for some time now. But why should these enhancements only apply to the feed?
We can leverage the benefits of feed structure to allow publishers to provide a feedback loop to the Web site; the feed can become input to content on the site. There are unique capabilities that can be provided to the site as a function of performing transformations and enhancements to the feed derived from that web content. FeedBurner will be making several announcements throughout the winter regarding a thoroughly open approach to leveraging the structure of the feed in order to add activity and meta-data feedback to the site.
A Focus on the Item
Another trend we believe will emerge is an increased focus on the item. Today, commercial publishers sometimes find themselves deciding how atomic to make their feeds. Should they distribute twenty feeds, each general and well subscribed, or should they distribute thousands of feeds, each very specific, atomic and targeted? Some publishers even provide forms that drive the creation of individually assembled feeds.
We believe these choices will prove artificial in the long run, and since feeds are now widely searched, shared, and passed around from one person to the next via web-based aggregators or opml reading lists, it’s probably wise today to distribute a more limited collection of broadly subscribed feeds. We believe the choices surrounding feed focus are artificial because ultimately, it is the atomic unit of measure in the feed – the item – that is the most important and requires significant attention.
Items are already pulled from feeds today in a variety of both publisher-friendly and publisher-annoying ways. Blog search, of course, pulls items from disparate feeds in order to deliver specific search engine results. Since the results themselves may be subscribed, we quickly see items from one feed hopping into another mixed feed in a way nobody would find contentious. Blog spam, to visit the other end of spectrum, also sees tools that take advantage of the simple structure in RSS/Atom feeds to enable hucksters to rip, mix, and ring the cash register by creating blogs that are seeded with content that will attract high cost-per-click ads to sit alongside the content. The blog spammer thus monetizes the item without involving the publisher, and perhaps more annoying, the original content is made to seem the property of another.
There are a host of item level uses by third parties, however, that sit somewhere in the foggy continuum between search and blog spam, with publishers battling what appears to us an impossibly spiraling game of identifying good guys and bad guys based on the apparent intentions of the service or party repurposing the content. Tech Memeorandum? We’ll put that in the good pile – very useful service, nice to see our content next to other reputable sources, doesn’t seem to be monetizing at the publisher’s expense (e.g., publishers are fully credited, linked, etc.). Some random person using a third party RSS splicing service to add your feed to their feed? Hmmm, the intention is less clear. Why is my content being blended into somebody else’s feed without my knowledge? Subscribers to that feed are once removed from me by a party I don’t know and who may not be reputable; should I care?
If we manage syndicated content at a more atomic level by attaching „threads“ to the item, we can provide tools to publishers that enable not just the tracking of the thread, but also use the thread as a communications line between the world of web services and the content item. We can essentially staple rules, patterns, and meta-data to the content in a live and „always on“ way, wherever the content goes. Of course there will be nefarious entities (aka evildoers, spammers, and bad guys) that will „snip“ the threads in order to hide their repurposing and use. So be it. The act of snipping removes any doubt about the bad guy’s intentions, and the publisher’s spiraling guesswork in determining good from bad repurposing is eliminated. Further, by inserting complexity into the equation for the spammer while not increasing the friction of any other reuse transaction, the spammer’s „zero marginal cost“ business becomes more difficult at nobody’s expense (contrast this to email spam fighting techniques in which making the spammer’s life more difficult makes everybody else’s life more difficult too).
By following the atomic unit of content around as it’s ripped, mixed, and republished, the content is afforded the widest variety of distribution paths to reach the largest possible audience, which in turn creates the greatest opportunity for monetization.
We would be remiss if we didn’t note that we have not even touched on the importance of brand in this section, and there are obviously publishers who want their highly paid international reporter’s mideast analysis appearing in a single subscribed feed next to their other highly commissioned content and not on a 3rd party aggregate site between „shmucky’s musings“ and „Sprouts for the holidays: A vegan’s political journey,“ all under blinking affiliate banners. We understand there is a continuum of content use issues to match the continuum of re-use intentions. Still, by managing the publisher’s intentions about fair use at the atomic level, and by providing these threads for an open communication channel with the content’s origin, a significant number of complexities and concerns start to look more like opportunities.
There is much more to say about our thoughts and plans regarding the power of the feed, which is why „Feed for Thought“ will be a series of reports as opposed to just one report. By leveraging more of the benefits of RSS, we can provide unparalleled distribution for a host of 3rd party web services, while also providing publishers with an unparalleled means of enhancing the content reading/listening/watching experience. We seldom get to use „unparalleled“ twice in one sentence. When we do, we like to pause and reflect on our passion for overstatement and hyperbole, and that’s as good a place to wrap this up as any.