Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Bad RSS? Issues And Problems In Feeds Future

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Though I am and have been a strong supporter of the adoption of RSS as an effective, user-centered, content delivery and distribution mechanism, I must be frank enough to show some of my concerns as well for this great technology.

Photo credit: Kristen Handfield

I am not drawing final conclusions today but only highlighting a bit of the not-so-great issues that RSS comes with, and of the more negative ones that may likely surface in the near future.

As I see it, RSS greatest drawbacks, may be due in good part to our stubbornness at wanting to apply old ways of doing things to new technologies. This is often inappropiate and can also lead to many people ending up with a distorted picture of what RSS is and how it is best used.

Take two emerging weak sides of RSS: advertising and security.

How are these being handled?

For what concern advertising in RSS feeds, everyone in the blogosphere got extremely excited about this opportunity and having Google recently release an RSS version of its AdSense program, many bloggers and online news publishers have run to test this out.

I myself have run a 4-day test on my main and most popular RSS feed to see whether all of the hoopla was truly worth being embraced.

In my earlier takes on RSS and advertising, much before of my first opportunity to test ads in RSS, I had advocated an intelligent and smart use of ads inside feeds, as in my opinion, "ads" as traditionally intended, where the absolute antithesis of the pull, user-driven spirit of RSS. You can scream all night long that you publishers need to make a buck at this, but I remain highly skeptical about imposing such solutions within a technology that glorifies user-driven choice.

I even went all the way out to picture a different way of using ads, or short commercial info-pointers (as AdSense ads really are) by creating RSS feeds that contained only ads. Highly selected, topic specific commercial info-pointers, which could be developed in a number of effective ways. But even Google has written to me that I must be out of my mind:

"With regard to your [publishing feeds with only ads], please know that Google does not support the activity of creating a feed for the sole purpose of showing Google ads. Please refrain from doing so."

So much for trying new approaches to deliver effectively commercial ads in a non-intrusive and user-driven approach.

What can I say...

My first 5-day ads test within my main RSS feed has provided some pretty amazing results which I have no shame to share:

"...on 10,000 Google Ads impressions I have recorded three clicks and a revenue of 0.33 cents."

I guess, that should say it pretty loud and clear.

The interesting thing is that the ads weren't that bad at all. Meaning: while most publishers complain that the AdSense ads appearing next to their content or in their feeds are not topic-relevant, that was not my specific case, and most of the ads displayed in the feed during the test were right on topic.


People didn't click them, and from what I can gather from my other stats, quite a few may have also decided to unsubscribe altogether as a sign of protest.

To be honest, nobody wrote to complain about this, but given my unethical approach to the test (I didn't announce it publicly that I was going to do this), I can easily identify with the sense of betrayal that hard-core information junkies and true supporters of open sharing may have felt upon seeing those new guys pop-up in between one news item and the next.

So be it. As things stand (meaning, given the option that I am now provided by the advertising agency) I will not publish more ads inside my RSS feeds. Not until I will have more control on the advertisers displayed, the branding and positioning of the same.

And what about security?

If you haven't read the latest headlines, what you thought was not going to happen to RSS, may indeed become your next nightmare: adware, spyware and possibly trojans and viruses may become part of the price to pay to get to RSS feed content in the near future.

According to Richard Stiennon, director of threat research Webroot, one of the most popular anti-spyware vendors:

"...spyware will latch onto RSS (Real Simple Syndication) as a way to distribute ad- and spy-style software."

" the end of the year spyware will probably have tripled in number, put Firefox in their sights and have turned RSS newsfeeds into key loggers and ad spawners.

The issue is that today's online marketers, both the "noble" and "dirty" ones have long hung onto this wrong idea of finding another eldorado by injecting text ads into RSS feeds. And now that RSS is being embraced by larger and larger number of people, they have no ethic or restrain to limit their quick and fast money-making approach.

And so where such marketers go you can expect to find all kinds of bad stuff showing up. "Where marketers go, adware and spyware writers follow."

Even more daunting outcomes could be created by hackers developing ways to to inject malicious code into a blogging site most likely through some future unpatched vulnerability in Internet Explorer 7. By using SOAP or similar technologies malicious marketers could infect anyone who subscribes to that service's blog RSS feeds in a very short matter of time.

(Source: TechWeb)

The above should clearly tell you, that after a thunderous start and a very rapid and continuously growing adoption rate, RSS, like any other technology has its weak sides and dangerous traits.

And while stopping in the tracks malicious spyware and code could be an issue relatively easy to resolve for security software firms, making RSS do what it was not designed to do, is an epidemic of ignorance we can only cure with more understanding and education of our fellow publishers.

If not, how?

Readers' Comments    
2005-06-17 01:58:19

Scott Rafer

Care to give Feedster's ads a shot? We're just working with category-level targeting at the moment and your feeds fit with our largest campaign. We've been seeing noticeably better results and it's noticeably better than $0.11 per click (though 30% CTR is out of our reach).

2005-06-15 16:46:55

Robin Good


the performance of my ads on web pages is in my humble opinion very high. I have an average CTR (clickthrough ratio) ranging from 10 to 15% on this site with selected category pages having above 30% CTR.

This is based on more than 500.000 monthly page views.

So, there is no comparison whatsoever with the near zero performance of the RSS based ads.

Any thought?

2005-06-15 14:35:01

Alex Barnett

How do your RSS ads performance compare to your site ads performance?

2005-06-14 21:01:30

Mike Agar

I noticed the ads in your feed, and came very close to dropping you from my reading list. As an RSS Aggregation Engine developer I don't have an issue with ads, but the Google ads have fixed widths and break up web page layouts. Plain text would have been better. Luckily the page your feed appears on is not width constrained and I suffered through your pilot program. However, Slashdot's got the scraper treatment and I've removed the ads from their channel to make sure it still fits on the page.

posted by Robin Good on Tuesday, June 14 2005, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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