Whilst most of us are happy to browse the highly graphic web pages of the Internet, many people are now turning to an alternative way of surfing the web. One that removes all of the rich graphics, and advertising, which one normally associates with premium web sites.
Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds have been around for some time – since 1999 in fact. Used initially to syndicate news feeds between sites, they are becoming an increasingly common presence on the web – typically flagged by a small orange button labelled RSS or XML. And they are increasingly being used - 20% of news search engine Topix's story clicks now come from their RSS feeds.
What has driven this rise in popularity? In part it must be due to the rise of the blogging phenonema – every blog is a news feed in waiting, and RSS is an ideal way to syndicate and aggregrate blog content. Blogging software such as Movable Type provides RSS feeds out of the box. Even the latest browsers, such as Firefox, actively detect and use RSS feeds, and Microsoft is planning RSS functionality for the Longhorn desktop.
RSS aggregration tools are also developing, Amphetamine probably being the best known. These let you subscribe to selected RSS feeds, and then provide your own custom news service drawn from those feeds. Mine, by the way, brings in news from sources as diverse as the BBC, Wired, Gizmodo and NanoBot. RSS is also ideal for content transformation, easily being made readable on a PDA or Smartphone, or even delivered as speech. The immediate client of an RSS feed is as likely to be a programme as a real human – which in turn raises its own issues about the use and IPR of the content of such feeds.
However all is not well in RSS land. Quite apart from the inevitable standards wars (in this case RSS versus ATOM), that demon of the early Internet has started to raise its head – advertising.
The last few months have seen a number of major web sites announce that are introducing, or looking at introducing advertising into their RSS feeds; Yahoo, Topix and Feedster amongst them. This has, predictably, had the RSS community up in arms. One of the founders of RSS, David Winer, has called for publishers “to be kind” to RSS, and not to try and exploit it.
Advertisers see RSS feeds as stealing valuable eye-balls from the main pages of a site, but also recognise that if somebody has bothered to take a feed from the site then they are an ideal target audience for well-targeted advertising. Users though like the fact that the RSS feed consists of just the hard content of a web site, with none if its frippery – or advertising. On the basis that information isn't free they may soon face two choices – pay for an ad-free feed, or take the advertising.
Just as the late 90s on the web became a battleground between technology purists and commercial pragmatists, the same is likely to happen with RSS over the next few years. But in all of this advertisers probably need to remember one thing. RSS is becoming as much about machine to machine communications as it is about business to consumer. And we are hopefully still many years from the day when a robot responds to an advert. What next, advertising on SOAP transactions?