Don't Put That in My Feed
There are two primary drivers behind the overall interest in advertising in RSS feeds. "To some extent, the growth of RSS advertising is due to the decline in being able to advertise via email effectively," says Forrester's Li. Additionally, "as more and more traffic is being diverted through RSS from their sites, publishers need to find a way to monetize that."
The value proposition of advertising in RSS versus email is clear. "You run a risk nowadays when you send out any type of email communications to your customers that they'll just delete it," says Pheedo's Flitter. "With RSS you know without a doubt that people have opted in. With RSS there is an absolute."
As a method of profiting from traffic diverted through RSS, though, advertising in and around feeds has a less clearly defined return on investment, potentially harming a publisher's bottom line rather than helping it. "With RSS, I consider it my feed, even though the publisher puts it out there. You come into my space with my permission, and I have total control over it," says Li. "If I get a feed that has an ad in it that I find intrusive, that feed goes bye-bye. Publishers have to be really careful, even more so than on a Web site."
Because of the ease with which readers can unsubscribe from feeds, publishers need to ensure that their RSS advertising efforts don't cross the vague line between enough advertising and too much. "Most publishers have been testing putting in advertisements every third or fourth article. That doesn't work. It violates the compact you have with your reader," says Li.
This reality becomes more apparent when discussing blog-derived RSS feeds. Blogs rely heavily on the community concept. By trying to monetize feeds, blog publishers risk damaging that sense of community. "The publishers who consider feeds as a way of building community around and traffic to their Web site—and who thus don't put ads in their feeds—will do better than the publishers who lose audience by putting ads in feeds," says Brent Simmons, founder of Ranchero Software, maker of RSS newsreader NetNewsWire.
The advantage of the trepidation among publishers to avoid turning off their readers by inserting too many ads into their feeds is that RSS feeds may avoid the spam plague, which has besieged email. "RSS is completely opt-in, opt-out. It's immediate and no one preserves your email address, so the spam problem at the end-user level largely goes away," says Rafer. "Publishers can't afford to lose subscribers."
Despite this, RSS may eventually develop its own form of spam—or rather may suffer from excessive advertising—a potential that also highlights another major issue surrounding RSS advertising's development. Like surfing the Web, RSS feeds have multiple points at which advertising can be placed. In the feeds themselves, there can be ads placed in an individual post or as a separate, standalone post. As readers view their feeds through an aggregator, there are opportunities for the creator of the aggregator to place advertising of their own beside the feeds. Finally, feed search engines are already adopting a similar approach to Google's AdSense in serving ads alongside search results. "What we're going to see is that all three of those places are going to have ads," says NewsGator's Reinacker. "Search engines are already advertising against search results. In aggregators like MyYahoo!, there's already ad space around the places where they're displaying content from RSS feeds."
Where to place an ad in a feed is more than a question of reader preferences, however. By early 2005 the issue of who owns the rights to place ads directly into an RSS feed came to a head. Trademark lawyer and active blogger Martin Schwimmer says he discovered that the news aggregator Bloglines.com "was reproducing the Trademark blog, surrounding it with its own frame, stripping the page of my contact information," according to a January 14 posting on Schwimmer's blog. Schwimmer goes on to state that he contacted Bloglines' CEO, who claimed his site was not running advertising next to Schwimmer's content. Either way, this fracas raises the question of who owns the rights to place ads in and around RSS feeds.
"There isn't a lot of that going on right now as far as people sticking ads in content that's not theirs. However, I think that's going to be a huge gray area moving forward. Stealing content is just so much easier to do now because of RSS," says Pheedo's Flitter. "Some of the search companies that search RSS feeds are sticking ads in the results. That's a little bit of a gray area. The search engine is adding value to the content, as it's stuff that I might not have found otherwise, but publishers may get upset because search engines make money off their content. It's an issue that we and the publishers have to be aware of."
"Our general strategy is to not violate other people's copyright. So on the search results, we insert an extra headline, because we don't have the rights to put ads in their posts inline as things currently stand unless we have a direct relationship with the publisher," says Feedster's Rafer. "People have whatever copyright they deem to apply to their content. Even in cases where you're only grabbing summaries, if you advertise on those summaries, you're violating fair use. My basic viewpoint on this is that somebody's going to get sued, and it's not going to be me."
But with RSS feeds being so easy to repurpose and repackage and the rights of RSS publishers still somewhat unclear, the issue of who has the rights to advertise in and around RSS feeds will likely stay unresolved for the foreseeable future, potentially until litigation ensues.