Content Syndication: Ready for the Masses?

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Riding the RSS Tidal Wave
So, most enterprises may remain leery or simply unaware of formal syndication opportunities, but one simple form of outbound syndication, RSS headline feeds, is expanding dramatically.

Not surprisingly, major media publishers joined the bandwagon early and represent avid RSS distributors. Another group that has taken to RSS is small consulting firms. My own Web site ( —like a growing number of other sites—now sees more referrals from its RSS feed than from Google.

But perhaps the biggest boost to RSS comes from individual Web logs. Most blogging packages and services have built-in RSS tools that can automatically generate an RSS feed as well as easily transform an incoming feed from XML into HTML. This way, syndication has become a kind of bulletin board; bloggers and their fans use it to maintain tabs with a broader community of individual publishers.

So it should not come as a surprise that specialized desktop software has emerged to allow people to surf RSS headlines and click through to articles that interest them. The technical community in general, and software community in particular, still accounts for much of the rapid adoption of these readers, but headline readers will likely find their way into the mainstream as college graduates (many of whom had to "blog" in classes at school) and other bloggers start making their presence felt within corporate employers. When that happens, I think we'll see newsreader functionality folded into the major Web browsers themselves. The science community has also taken to RSS as a way to spread ideas, data, and research developments as well. Perhaps this will serve as a model for academia more generally. Tapping into this trend, NASA's Earth Observatory Web site publishes a popular RSS feed that identifies all the new assets as it publishes them online.

In the near-term, content aggregators like Moreover (U.S) and NewsNow (U.K.) are major beneficiaries and promoters of headline syndication. They aggregate pieces of different feeds into topic-specific packages. Significantly, aggregators then offer these thematic headline feeds in HTML formats as well as RSS. One of the dirty little secrets of XML-based syndication is that most subscribing sites have neither the tools nor the expertise to transform XML content into HTML (although as mentioned earlier, news readers for individuals do take care of this problem nicely). Simple is Good, Right?

RSS feeds are very simple to create. Indeed, the success of RSS probably stems in large measure from being what techies call a "lightweight" protocol. When you want something broadly adopted, light is good. (See Sidebar.)

For commercial enterprises, however, publishing RSS feeds may not seem like an obvious play. Corporations fear losing control, and RSS is all about giving up control—control over ultimate appearance (you are only pushing the content, not the layout), over terms of use, and over network resources, to some extent, as the RSS feed is tapped indiscriminately. Today, many companies may not believe that the benefit of increase traffic to their sites is worth the perceived risks.

Consider the case of the Coca-Cola Company. One aggregator, Moreover, offers a headline feed about Coca-Cola, taken from disparate sources across the Web. Coke does not publish a feed to push its own story. Instead, the company's public relations group employs opt-in email lists where it vets the subscribers in advance. According to a Coca-Cola spokesperson, the company is focused on email distribution of new content. The company does work actively with other "myth-debunking" Web sites (such as when rumors arise about the firm, but they have no near-term plans to produce their own syndication feed. This is not at all unusual; for example, most large associations use email blasts to communicate with members, chapters, and the press. Email is attractive because it travels straight to an individual, and email clients are ubiquitous. However, email doesn't regularly touch non-subscribers, and typically doesn't carry the immediacy, comprehensiveness, or flexibility of headline syndication.

Industry sage Steve Arnold of Arnold Information Technology thinks this approach is bound to change. "Companies are reluctant to publish RSS feeds because they are tradition-bound," Arnold argues, "but young kids coming on-board are going to change that." Arnold notes, however, that the old guard within corporate marketing and PR departments may not respond positively, especially if there is a perception that sensitive corporate information is being revealed. Of course, the whole point of RSS is simply to summarize content and propagate headlines that have already been approved and published anyway.

But there's the rub. To the extent that they think about syndication, many enterprises perceive it as only for "news," rather than new information more generally. However, in our hyperlinked era, the world thinks that everything you published for the first time on your site today is news—not just the content your firm packaged up into a formal press release. This is a scary thought for many PR departments, who are used to controlling the organization's message. Remember, though, that the advent of sophisticated headline harvesters means that your new Web con- tent will ultimately be syndicated for you, even if you don't do it yourself.

A bigger long-term impact of expanding headline syndication is an accelerated disintermediation of traditional news outlets, as content packagers emerge with novel information products. Steve Arnold points to Slashdot, where peer-ratings layered on top of community-sourced content now results in a very high-quality RSS feed that has become a "must-subscribe" in the tech world. If headline syndication really takes off, major corporations will need to rethink their messaging, most of which is directed at traditional media. It will also have an impact—even though the outlines of those changes remain blurry—on the trade press, including the magazine you are reading right now.

Change Afoot
Even today, there are signs that organizations are beginning to pick up on syndication. John Deere is syndicating content to its dealers, and Motorola syndicates content to design engineers. Vignette's Pedersen points out that new wireless standards in Europe are prompting enterprises of all stripes to review the atomicity of their content and to consider syndicating content snippets to emerging wireless-oriented portals. Perhaps the content distribution tail will wag the information-architecture dog after all. How easy or risk-free does outbound syndication have to be for it to make sense for your enterprise? Perhaps it's time to think bigger than the simple management of content and start putting valuable information to work beyond the confines of your own Web site.

Sidebar: RSS = Really Simple Syndication

RSS officially stands for Rich Site Summary, but according to librarian and information architect Karl Fast of the University of Western Ontario, RSS should also be thought of as "Really Simple Syndication." He's right. Generating an RSS feed is simple. Consider this screen, which shows part of an RSS file.

First you set some introductory tags at the beginning of the XML file with content that generally doesn't change much. Then each new entry, or , is represented by three elements: , , and . Chances are your content management system already uses these three fields. If your content authors can't or won't enter description metadata, the first several sentences of the new article will probably suffice.

No content management system? Never fear, you can beg, borrow, or write a simple script that will traverse your Web file directories each night looking for new content and parsing out titles and hyperlinks to generate the RSS file. If you really want to syndicate headlines, you could probably start today.

Companies Featured in This Article

Arnold Information Technology
Electronic Commerce Connection, Inc.
Enigma Figleaf Software
Headline Viewer

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