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Syndication and its Discontents

04 Jun 2004 by Jim Coudal

We’re getting ready to launch a fairly major redesign of our studio site and we’re trying to decide what is the right thing to do relative to providing a syndicated feed via Atom and/or RSS. Let’s use our site as an example for this discussion but we really want to know what SvN people think about the issue because there are also many decisions to be made relative to the work we do for clients.

First, our audience (at least some of them) wants the feed. We get emails about it all the time. Specifically they want our daily link list “Fresh Signals” syndicated. We’re glad for the interest and in general we’re disposed to give our audience what they want, but we’re more than a little conflicted here.

We publish Fresh Signals for good reasons. We have found over time that the stuff we find interesting, other people find interesting too. Primarily, it’s fun to share and satisfying to be able to bring attention to projects and people that deserve it. But, we also publish Fresh Signals because it gives our readers a reason to visit our site regularly. And when they do, hopefully, they’ll take a peek at some of our other projects and features like Western State, the video series we host in collaboration with Slowtron, or the Museum of Online Museums, or links to what’s happening with our other business, Jewelboxing. If people are reading Fresh Signals via a feed, that all goes out the window.

Plus, we’re designers and control freaks. We’ve worked hard on developing a look and feel for the site. The “voice” of Coudal Partners is found not just in the copy we write, but importantly, in the context in which it’s presented. In a feed, everything carries the same weight. It’s as if every word spoken on a radio station was in the same bland monotone voice. No, it’s worse that that. It’s as if every word spoken on every radio station was spoken with that same voice.

For client work the stakes are higher. We’re just getting to a point where we can create an accurate profile of our clients’ visitors. (Who they are. Where they came from. How they use the site. Etc.) We can customize their experience and serve them information based on those profiles. Now we’re supposed to forget about all that in favor of reducing traffic and replacing it with traffic that we can’t easily identify or even accurately measure? I dunno. It’s a hot topic and maybe I’m missing something but when a client says to me that “we are not sure what RSS is but we know we want it,” I get worried. What say you?

28 comments so far (Post a Comment)

04 Jun 2004 | Jameson said...

I've been surrounded by "not sure what RSS is but we know we want it" lately, because it's managing to get a lot of buzz as "regular folks" start tuning into the blog explosion. It's maddening. I constantly find myself having to explain that - as with any technology - it's important to evaluate whether RSS is a good fit for the content of a site, rather than just forcing Atom/RSS into the mix.

Regarding a Fresh Signals feed, my humble suggestion is to go for it. It's difficult to give up control, but if your regular readers are asking for it, chances are they'll continue to visit your site with some regularity. (You might consider a separate feed for MoOM or other features - updated less frequently, but bringing readers directly to your content. With any luck, subscribers to the Fresh Signals feed will subscribe to both, and that will bring them to you.) For almost all of us, it's difficult to give up that control, but your readers are control freaks, too. They want to get Fresh Signals the way they want it - and if they can, maybe they'll become regular site visitors as well as feed subscribers. After all, if they're getting quality information from you, there's reason to believe that there might be even more quality information at your site. Maybe some traffic will go down at first, but then new traffic will appear from readers who learned about you via your feed.

Just my 2¢.

04 Jun 2004 | Andrew Dupont said...

This is not unlike Matt Mullenweg's take on syndication. For personal blogs it's a matter of politeness; for commercial (and semi-commercial) blogs, it's part of the business plan.

My feeling is that 90% of people who use RSS feeds use them not so that they can avoid having to visit individual sites, but so that they know when to visit those sites. I'm fine with opening an entry in a browser, rather than reading it in NetNewsWire, as long as I know when a site has updated.

For this reason, I think that an RSS feed with excerpts is a good compromise. I know the subject of a post and am given enough of its text to decide whether I want to read it.

Linklogs, however, are a different animal altogether. If I were in your position, I'd likely put out a feed with one entry for each day's links -- but putting a summary of the linklist in the description field, rather than the links themselves. That way people still come to your site and are reminded to do so every day you update the linklog. If you made each link a new item in the feed, you could hardly justify doing it this way.

The only tricky part would be when to put out the feed.

04 Jun 2004 | Sean Devine said...

As a reader of Fresh Signals, I'm definitely in favor of a syndicated content feed. But, I understand your desire to drive traffic to the site and "control" the user experience a bit more tightly then you can in a news reader. I agree with an earlier commenter that an RSS feed of excerpts makes the most sense. It would provide readers like me a signal that new content is available and would keep me coming back to the site.

In general, it's hard for me to imagine that syndicating content from coudal.com would do anything but increase your readership and fan base.

04 Jun 2004 | Justin said...

The sense of urgency to make RSS part of the site reminds me of dot-com days. I'm currently reading " Good to Great" which was published in Oct 2001. Closer to the end, the author talks a bit about the bubble, and despite us all living through it, it's still odd to be reminded. Just because the pressure is there, does not mean it's the best solution. Of course you knew that or you wouldn't have asked.

If you really do want to provide the feeds, perhaps you could find an innovative way to put that type of content into the feed. Why not put ads into blog entries themselves? I've yet to see it, but I can't be the first to realize it is inevitable. Surely you can find a way to pull it off without offending readership.

Andrew Dupont offers a good suggestion too. What I like about feeds is having software remind me that content is updated. So far I stick to a list of bookmarks and the handy "Check for updates" feature of Mozilla bookmarks.

04 Jun 2004 | Brad Hurley said...

My feeling is that 90% of people who use RSS feeds use them not so that they can avoid having to visit individual sites, but so that they know when to visit those sites

Exactly.

04 Jun 2004 | Jameson said...

Exactly.

Seconded!

04 Jun 2004 | jake said...

I'd have to agree with Andrew also, I usually sift through things and just "throw" interesting things into new tabs in my browser and move on. Then I go back and read them.

The first thing you'd probably think of with the Fresh Signals is to summarize, but that basically defeats the purpose of "syndication." Not to mention my partner in crime would slap me silly on my site.

If you included images you could always do what I do, strip them out and leave a little pointer that says, "hey you're missing something." No loss in content, but saves some bandwidth. This also won't work since there are no images.

You have found a tough thing to tackle. I'd say just go for it and think about what Andrew said if you can't come up with a compromise. Good luck!

04 Jun 2004 | Jason Santa Maria said...

er... Thirded!

I love the design of Coudal so much that I really only like to read the news in its natural environment. I just want to know when to go so I don't waste your bandwidth hitting refresh all day long :D

04 Jun 2004 | Coudal said...

Good suggestions all. My inclination is to provide a feed for “Fresh Signals” that automatically includes periodic posts about the more static features on our site. Then hide those posts from displaying on the site itself since teases to those features are already there. A new category in the Fresh Signals weblog and a little PHP ought to do the trick.

But what do you make of this? In an excellent article at OJR that addresses many of these issues, Dave Winer is quoted as saying "I haven't been to the New York Times home page in years and yet I read 20 articles a day in the New York Times." If I’m in charge of online ad sales for The Times wouldn’t my sales pitch to Tiffany’s be stronger if I had recorded all Dave’s visits? Plus how is Dave going to be inspired to buy that diamond ankle bracelet he doesn't know he needs?

04 Jun 2004 | Brad Hurley said...

Is it really not possible to create some sort of profile of people who view your posts via an RSS reader? And the number of requests?

I'm curious about this, because we run some listservs that we've been thinking about eventually converting over to RSS, but my client really wants to know who's subscribing. With a listserv, you've got a reasonably accurate profile of all the subscribers. Not so with RSS, but I don't know what's possible to track.

04 Jun 2004 | Brad Hurley said...

"I haven't been to the New York Times home page in years and yet I read 20 articles a day in the New York Times."

Yeah, but Dave Winer is an RSS evangelist. I subscribe to the NY TImes RSS feed too, but I visit the Web site every day and read the stories there. It's a lot more enjoyable to read articles on a Web site than in an RSS reader. And it's more enjoyable still to read them on paper, but I'd prefer to let the trees live.

04 Jun 2004 | Will Pate said...

Get over yourself and just put the feed in. You'll have a hard time convincing anyone that isn't a webdesigner that your pride in your design work supersedes their interest in viewing the content in the manner most convenient for them. It's not about you, it's about the user.

04 Jun 2004 | Dr_God said...

I used to frequent Fresh Signals several times a day before I switched to an RSS way of life. Now I almost never visit the site. If there was a Fresh Signals feed, I would become a visitor again.

As a general rule, I visit sites with RSS feeds quite often, and I almost never visit sites without feeds anymore.

04 Jun 2004 | monkeyinabox said...

RSS isn't about content out of context, but simply allowing people to check out more content without having to devote all their time into doing it. It's smart reading.

04 Jun 2004 | andrew said...

Options for users are good, esp. with something like syndication (which always makes me think of Ice T: "...Syndicate, foo'...") because everyone's surfing habits have their own little quirks.

RSS readers are still a "power" user tool, IMHO. I tend to go back and forth between using NetNewsWire and just visiting sites via a browser.
Reading longer pieces in a reader really annoying, so if anything catches my interest, I'll immediately open it in a browser.

Give us a Fresh Feed, JC!

04 Jun 2004 | Thomas Baekdal said...

About controlling the user experience, I fail to see why you can do it on the site - but not in a feed. And why can you not measure it?

For me you can not only control every aspect of a feed, even personalize it based on what people are interested in (on-the-fly). You can also measure how many Feed readers you got, what entries they read and how frequently they do so.

I see also no reason why you cannot include "featured projects / see also / related topics" with each entry. I have been planning to add to add this to my feeds for some time - because it is both good marketing and good usability. Normal feeds often lack the connection with the other things you do - your readers would like to get that information, you want to show it, but we never do so because it is a feed.

Styling? Well, news feed styling is possible (with exceptions - and it lacks proper testing). But I would only recommend a very low-end type of styling. If you want to add style because of ego and for the sake of graphics I think you should reconsider. Neither of these generates revenue - most likely they do the opposite.

---

Not having people to visit your site: Well, if the feed does not represent what your company does, then it is a problem - indeed a huge problem. In this case the feed (for Fresh Signals) really do not represent your core-business, and unless you can add that I would not recommend having a feed. People might want it, but they do not want it because of your business - thus it is a service for people who do not generate revenue.

But, if you add "featured projects", and possibly what the company is about, into your feed then I think that is more valuable than forcing people to come to your site.

Of course it would be even better if the feed was primarily about your core-business.


So basically ensure that your feed supports your core business, add relevant additional topics. If it is a site like NY Times include ads if you like (non-intrusive ones of course)


BTW: Listen to Will Pate

04 Jun 2004 | Ole Eichhorn said...

There really isn't a technical difference between RSS and Atom. All aggregators support RSS because that's by far the most prevalent format, so by supporting RSS you will support "everyone". Most aggregators also support Atom, but there is no need for any one site to syndicate using more than one format.

So net net I'd go with RSS.

Ole

P.S. And RSS 2.0 is the most recent and best incarnation of RSS.

04 Jun 2004 | Tomas said...

Firstly, there is no reason to not offer both Atom and RSS feeds. If you can implement one, you can implement the other.

Secondly, if you want your visitors to read your website in the browser, rather than in the aggregator, just offer entry excerpts. But you should probably let your readers decide however they want to read your content and offer full text feeds.

Personally, I use an aggregator but I read all entries in the browser. RSSReader Panel makes that convenient, being a Firefox extension.

05 Jun 2004 | dmr said...

RSS kind of gimicky, and I'm a fan of presenting content in a visual context to increase readability, emphasize an already present tone and keep things close to home. We trust designers to thoughtfully shape content and I would hope many designers imbue information with a special something; there's more to the information than the ASCII text.

05 Jun 2004 | Sunny said...

The buzz behind syndication reminds me about the buzz surronding portals during the dot-com days. "We don't know what it is, what it does, but we want it."

To me its about choice. If some of your visitors prefer syndication, I suppose you have to concede. But really use it in a way to drive them to the site. Summaries instead of full posts could be a way. Keep the availability of feed lowkey (auto-discovery instead of explicit link) so that people who really need it, use it.

There is no doubt that linklogs are a way to keep the content fresh and people interested. Zeldman and Hivelogic do not publish a feed for their linklogs, ensuring fresh visits.

The point really is that syndication is here to stay. Content providers have to concede a little control. But don't give it all away.

06 Jun 2004 | ~bc said...

There are so many sites now a days that if you don't offer an RSS feed, you're missing an easy way to bring viewers to your site. It's to the point where I hardly acknowledge a site that doesn't have RSS. In the last year or so (the time where NetNewsWire has become my eyes and ears of the net) I've barely even thought of Coudal, because of the lack of RSS. You might have caught my post previously here about a week or so ago, asking if I missed the feed. I'm sorry, your work is great, but non existent to me.

But I see 37, Zeldman, Dominey, any number of other designers + shops daily, often times going to their sites, since they draw me in with their feeds, and I know that I'll be treated to their other visual delights that I concede when I consume via syndication. Also, when they announce their projects via their feeds, I have first notice to go check their stuff out (eg, BaseCamp)

Soon, RSS will be like a website just a few years back... if you don't have it, you won't exist... at least in our sector of society.

06 Jun 2004 | Sunny said...

Soon, RSS will be like a website just a few years back... if you don't have it, you won't exist... at least in our sector of society.

That is really sad. It is.

06 Jun 2004 | Dennis Schwartz said...

Ohh come on, Atom is the future, you know that! Please, don't ignore this. But if you can have both during the transition it will be good.

07 Jun 2004 | pb said...

From the gist of your questions (if I offer a feed noone will come to my site, I can't control the look and feel in a feed) I'd suggest you stop running a business. You said it yourself "our audience wants the feed". I would never, ever go to coudal.com, but I might if I came upon a link to it and 99 times out of a hundred, it would be through a feed.

ps reading this thread through a feedreader.

07 Jun 2004 | Jacob Lyles said...

I would implement a feed with a summary of updates.

I.e. "Just added to Fresh Signals: How to bake perfect pizza crust, Syndication without giving away the store"

I wouldn't put complete posts in the feed nor the URLs.

I find that feeds with descriptions (As opposed to just titles) respect the visitor by allowing them to quickly peruse updated content but don't automatically throw them to the website in the browser. I prefer to read posts on the website in their original context but don't like being forced to the website just to decide whether I'm going to read or not (If I had wanted to do that, I would have visited the website in the first place).

But as you've described it, "Fresh Signals" is not a typical type off feed--rather it is a value-added feature designed to drive traffic to your website and lead people to learn more about your projects, business, and expertise.

It's like offering free coffee to everyone who comes into your store. The visitors can get their free coffee, but they have to come to your store first.

Keep in mind what it is that you're offering (Interesting links) and what you want from it (visitors).

Re: Winer's comments on not visiting the NYtimes homepage, he may not view the homepage, but he gets served ads when he goes to read the articles. It's a tradeoff between not serving up the ads on the homepage and people reading more articles.

07 Jun 2004 | dusoft said...

I agree with Jacob, the summaries should be enough. I guess you won't post that often, will you?

08 Jun 2004 | Coudal said...

http://www.coudal.com/includes/index.xml

27 Jun 2004 | Bronwyn said...

Bloglines.com (my feedreader) saves me work: all my regular reading is in one place and I can easily see what's new. Any item more than a couple paragraphs long gets opened in its own window -- easy with Opera. If my reading patterns are anywhere near typical, you'd have a win-win arrangement by setting up a feed.

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