If you’re doing online marketing and you’re not leveraging RSS, what the heck are you waiting for? New technologies that both publishers and advertisers use to connect with online consumers are always continuing to emerge. From HTML to Macromedia Flash to streaming video, the arrival of distribution methods requires organizations to periodically reinvent how they speak to their audience.
And that’s just what RSS does, according to Amanda Watlington, a marketing consultant for Searching for Profit and co-author of Business Blogs: A Practical Guide. Tapping into this new distribution channel provides a great opportunity for marketers to connect with consumers.
“I have never been as excited about anything for the Web as RSS,” she says.
She’s not alone. The latest online communication format is the blog format, which features short personal commentaries about timely and topical issues. Driven largely by political and technology content, but rapidly expanding into every niche imaginable, the number of blogs is doubling every five months and is on pace to pass 20 million in late 2005, according to blog search engine Technorati.
While blogging won’t replace traditional Web publishing, it is fast becoming an important content delivery platform for reaching new audiences. However, capitalizing on blogging requires forgetting much of what you know about search engine optimization and following a new set of rules for content preparation, discovery and distribution.
That’s where RSS comes in. Many attribute the popularity of blogs to a handful of technologies such as RSS and Atom, which allow users to subscribe to feeds and also gives publishers more effective and efficient ways to deliver constantly updated information.
The Blog World Order
And while blogging is a relatively new frontier, it is not difficult for marketers to create RSS feeds that are easily distributed, says Watlington, who notes that RSS is misunderstood as being difficult to create even when there are many user-friendly tools for adding XML tags to structured text.
“It is a challenge of imagination, not implementation,” she says.
In addition to the personal and unfiltered nature of blogs, RSS feeds are growing in part because consumers are in control of the media. After finding a blog or news feed of interest, consumers subscribe to a feed through an RSS reader website or application. Feeds are then piped directly to their desktops. This has an advantage over newsletters since it is not being blocked by spam filters or lost within the volumes of email. For marketers this can be a valuable direct pipeline to consumers and a way to further establish loyalty.
According to an October 2005 study by Yahoo and consulting firm Ipsos Insight, 27 percent of people online have read content from RSS feeds. However, there is still an RSS learning curve for consumers as just 4 percent of those surveyed knew that they had interacted with RSS content; the remaining 23 percent had read RSS feeds through personalized home pages such as My Yahoo.
The demographic of those reading RSS feeds is also encouraging for marketers. According to the survey, those reading RSS feeds tend to be wealthier and more educated than the average person online. RSS feeds can also include advertisements, providing access to an audience that tends to spend less time browsing commercial websites.
Raising the RSS Flag
Launching an RSS feed in the preferred format of short commentaries is just the first step in creating a blog to expand your business reach (see Revenue Volume 2, fall 2005). In addition to writing compelling blog entries, capitalizing on blogging requires understanding new parameters, such as how to tell blog search engines that a blog exists. Also, like “Blanche Dubois,” blogging to a certain extent relies on the kindness of strangers, as others must link to your blog to spread the word and increase your search rank.
Also, for RSS feeds, timeliness is next to godliness. Unlike standard search, where a site with relevant content or keyword optimization can remain at the top of the search results almost indefinitely, the timeliness of blog posts factors heavily into blog search rankings.
Much like news searches (many of which are also based on RSS feeds), blog content has to be “bakery fresh” as most of the top blog search results are usually only hours old. Posting once or twice a week on popular topics will not likely be sufficient to penetrate the first page of search results.
In addition to being timely, blog content must be optimized for keywords. Rodney Rumford, co-founder of marketing consulting firm Leveraged Promotion, says bloggers have to walk a tightrope by including many references to the keyword in question without the content becoming obnoxious to readers or being identified by search engines as spam.
Blog searching has many players and no dominant force, so the strategy for optimizing keywords is less defined than traditional search engine optimization. For example, optimizing for one blog search engine may hurt a blog’s standing elsewhere. “No one knows exactly how their algorithms work,” Rumford says.
Blog publishers also must be proactive to be discovered by the blogosphere. While search engines crawl the known universe for content, blog search sites require new content to be submitted for their inspection.
Google and Yahoo’s blog search sites, along with competitors including Bloglines, Technorati and Weblogs, require bloggers to submit their URLs for consideration. Or, services such as Pingomatic or FeedShot can submit sites to many of the top blog search engines, but that may require paying a fee.
Sites such as Pingomatic will monitor your site for new content and send pings (a notification among Web servers) to the search engines every time new content is posted. A group of blog-interested companies is attempting to streamline what is currently a disjointed ping process through a central hub called FeedMesh.
Companies that receive pings will share data with FeedMesh members including Bloggdigger, Blo.gs, Google, PubSub, VeriSign and Yahoo. While some bloggers are skeptical about FeedMesh, the group effort has the potential to make blog searching more comprehensive and less complicated for newcomers to gain exposure.
Unfortunately, blog spammers have been quick to abuse the blog distribution process, and have created tens of thousands of spam blogs (see sidebar on page 71).
The hope is that once a blog search engine is aware of a blog, other bloggers who find the content useful will take notice and include links to your content on their sites. Tapping into the blog community (or blogosphere) can do wonders for a blog’s traffic. Being listed on sites such as Digg.com, Kottke.org or Waxy.org that blog the best blogs, or bookmark-sharing sites including Del.icio.us or Furl.net, can increase exposure more than search engines.
It’s Only the Blogining
Interest in blogging from the major search engines is likely to increase the number and readership of blogs by several magnitudes within the next year. The recent surge in interest and acquisitions by AOL, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo will rapidly bring RSS feeds to the majority of the general public. “We haven’t seen the hockey stick growth yet” in blogs, says Searching for Profit’s Watlington.
In recent months, VeriSign purchased blog site Weblogs, and Yahoo added blogs to its news search, while Google initiated a blog-specific search and a Web-based RSS reader. In May 2005, Google launched AdSense for feeds, which enables publishers to intersperse content- related pay-per-click ads within their feeds. Although few publishers are currently including ads with their feeds, that is likely to change because an increase in the readership of RSS feeds will enhance the revenue potential. One potential drawback for advertisers is the unfiltered nature of content on blogs, which some companies might be hesitant to support through advertising.
Microsoft’s embracing of RSS will likely have the greatest impact on the use of feeds by bloggers and marketers. Microsoft’s next Web browser update, Internet Explorer 7.0, due out in early 2006, will alert readers when RSS feeds are available for a website and will automate the subscription process. (Similar technology is currently included in Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple Computer’s Safari browser.) Microsoft is also adding visual cues to the browser to show when RSS feed subscriptions contain new data.
Microsoft Vista, the next version of the Windows operating system, will centralize RSS feed data and provide programming tools to make it available to applications. This paves the way for business applications to directly collect and organize data from RSS feeds, opening up a plethora of new uses for RSS feeds.
“Internet Explorer will fix RSS in terms of making it invisible” to consumers, says Ron Rasmussen, chief technology officer at KnowNow, an information infrastructure company. Microsoft’s endorsement of RSS could make it a mass-market technology within the next few years and may propel feed subscriptions to become as relied upon as search engines. “You don’t know what happens once you go to 95 percent awareness,” Rasmussen says.
After consumers become comfortable signing up for RSS feeds from blog and news services, they are likely to be more comfortable subscribing to feeds about items for sale, Rasmussen says. For example, consumers can track time-sensitive items such as concert tickets or real estate listings through RSS feeds. Craigslist.org and job site Monster.com are among the first organizations to produce listings as RSS feeds.
Pushing the Future
Building a business around sending content directly to desktops was attempted before without success during the Internet boom. However, “push” technology failed because most consumers at that time were using slow dial-up lines, and because the leading companies such as PointCast used proprietary technology that was licensed and required customizing content. RSS feeds have a greater likelihood of success because the format is free to implement.
A technical similarity between RSS readers and push applications are that both periodically (about once an hour) crawl websites looking for new content on the feeds. While bandwidth has greatly improved since the late 1990s, a rapid rise in the use of RSS feeds could take its toll on the Internet infrastructure. Having tens of millions of RSS reader programs continually querying blog websites for new content could dramatically increase Internet traffic and create a bottleneck.
Two subscription service companies are developing service that they say will reduce traffic by automatically pushing content as it is updated to subscribers. RSS subscription services from KnowNow and PubSub remove the need for each desktop to be continually polling for content by collecting new feeds and sending the data directly to consumers’ Web browsers.
The new services also have the potential to enable online merchants to streamline communications with their affiliates and customers. KnowNow’s Rasmussen says the subscription services consolidate all of the feeds about a given topic, such as golf, reducing the number of feed subscriptions.
PubSub works with publishers to push new content that matches consumer interests to their desktops. For example, when a blog publishes something related to antique cars, everyone who has subscribed to that feed would receive an alert to their browser. PubSub is currently delivering RSS feeds to more than 750,000 subscriptions, according to CEO Salim Ismail, adding that advertisements will likely be added in the future to pay for the free service. Under this model, consumers receive information more promptly, while publishers and advertisers get exposure to a focused audience.
PubSub and a group of blog services are developing a next generation of RSS that enable blogs to add styles to their feeds. Structured blogging includes formatting descriptions for common types of content such as movie reviews, journal entries, job postings and events so that each can be uniquely identified by search engines. Blog creation sites WordPress, MovableType, and Drupal have adopted structured blogging, and publishers could similarly create styles for distributing product information.
KnowNow is developing an RSS feed notification that will be marketed to merchants to provide timely updates to their affiliates, according to CTO Rasmussen. The company would push data such as product information or sales reports that are currently sent in batches through RSS feeds. RSS “takes that latency out of the business process,” he says. Marketers could respond to changes in demand or inventory within minutes instead of waiting for overnight reports.
These days of uncertainty and rapid change in implementing blogs and RSS feeds provide an opportunity to gain valuable experience that can be used to influence future developments. While diving in early has its risks, so does waiting until everyone else sets the agenda.
JOHN GARTNER is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. He is a former editor at Wired News and CMP. His articles regularly appear on Wired.com, AlterNet.org and in MIT’s TechnologyReview.com.