Ads in RSS feeds? Corrupting the idea of information syndication

It was inevitable, I suppose, but I’m still upset about this change in the blogosphere: One of the new announcements from Google’s AdSense program is that they’re beginning to support adding targeted advertising in RSS feeds.
What’s an RSS feed? Different people are going to give you different answers, but my view is that it’s an information syndication and communication channel that lets me use tools to track changes and updates to lots of Web sites with a single unified application. So, for example, instead of visiting newswire Web sites or popping over to weblogs from my colleagues and friends, I just use a delightful tool called NewsGator and easily keep track of almost 150 different Web sites and RSS feeds simultaneously.
Until this week, RSS has all been ad free, and one of the truly great things about using an RSS aggregator, as they’re called, is that I’ve been able to focus on the content, not the presentation: even the most funky Web design produces a simple text-only RSS feed.

But this week two of the larger Web sites added advertising to their feeds, one with, as far as I can tell, an independent ad network and the other with Google’s AdSense program.
No warning, no “we need to generate more revenue from our site, can you suggest ways to help us out”, no “please answer our survey about ways we can generate revenue, ranking them from least annoying to most annoying.” Just ads that popped up in the RSS feeds from two major Web sites, Web sites run by smart, future-thinking companies that I would have expected have more savvy than just to foist this upon us subscribers.
But let me show you what I’m talking about so you can see for yourself…
First up, here’s how the tremendously popular geek and computer aficionado discussion site Slashdot now looks in NewsGator:

slashdot rss feed with advertisement

About 50% of the feed section is now an advertisement from the Slashdot site. Imagine if they designed their Web site that way. Would you ever go back to a site where 50% of their page is advertising? I wouldn’t.
A second site that disappoints in this same manner is The Unofficial Apple Website, a part of the Weblogs, Inc. collection of Weblogs. They’re using Google’s AdSense for RSS:
the unofficial apple weblog - weblogs inc - rss feed with advert

I find this even more in-your-face, and they’re sensitive to the reaction from this change too; they actually posted a note about the addition of the advertisements entitled RSS feed gets Google Adsense. Rather to my surprise, though, the comments attached to that message aren’t 100% against this idea, and some seem fairly cool with this change. I can only assume that these folk read a very small number of RSS feeds in their aggregators, somehow.
Before you sharpen your virtual quill, be advised that it’s not because these advertisements mark the entry of ‘crass commerce’ or ‘the invasion of capitalism’ – I mean, a glance at my Weblog shows that I too have overt advertising as a method of monetizing my traffic and offsetting the cost of producing and maintaining this Weblog.
The problem is that it’s changed after the fact. This violation of expectations is the same reason that I now really dislike AMC TV: for years it was advertising-free classic movies, but now they have as many ad breaks as a major network channel.
Further, I can now envision a future where everyone is injecting advertising into their RSS feeds, and I can see how it could eventually kill off RSS aggregators and RSS newsreaders entirely. It’s one thing to have 45 new RSS entries, of which two or three have an advert jarringly stuck in the middle, and something else entirely when 50, 60 or even 75% of those RSS feeds have ads and I’m looking at an aggregate page that’s more advertising than content, a page that has far less visual coherence and is far less readable and understandable. Even the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are smart enough to keep advertising away from the middle of their front-page columns!
Think I’m being pessimistic? Notice that Feedburner is already telling its customers (including me, were I to opt for it) that, yes, Feedburner will support Google AdSense adverts in feeds.
But ranting isn’t very productive. Here’s a proposed solution for these sites, before I become one of the first of what I believe will be a dramatic wave of people to unsubscribe to their RSS feeds: offer an excerpt-only advertising-free feed. That way, if I can handle the advertising, I can subscribe to the full feed and get the entire article in my aggregator, and if I hate the ads – and, believe me, I do – then I can just get the first 3-4 lines of each article and decide if I want to visit the site to read the rest. If I visit the site, then present the article to me with advertising (as this page has ads) and I’d be okay with that.
If not, then I request these sites change their cute little orange “RSS” buttons to green buttons that say “R$$” instead.

17 comments on “Ads in RSS feeds? Corrupting the idea of information syndication

  1. Hi Dave,
    if you add ads to your feed, I’ll actually get to read all of your posts, not just the few that I bother to click on.
    I read virtually *everything* in NetNewsWire. We’ve had this conversation before, and since you won’t give a full feed in hopes of attracting eyeballs to the your site, the result for me is I read your first few words, think to myself I wonder what else he said, and hit space to move on.
    Lest you cast me into the camp of those w/only a few feeds, let me note I have over 200 subs. That’s why I can’t be bothered; if I can’t read it in place, it has be very compelling, not just possibly interesting, to get me to click.
    Now, I don’t want ads, but if that’s the price to view your writing, that’s fine w/me.

  2. I read my feed too, Mike, and I really don’t know how you can say that you only read “my first few words”. I always have at least 2-3 paragraphs of content in my RSS feeds, enough information for you to get the gist of my article without making the entire piece available via the newswire.

  3. RSS should definitely be ad-free, no question. Unlike Mike, I think this blog is a perfect example of how RSS and ads should work. Give me a teaser in the RSS, enough information to know where a post is going, and let me click it if I want to keep reading. I have NetNewsWire set to open links in OmniWeb tabs in the background, so after I click on the things I want to read, I have a nicely laid-out series of tabs in OW waiting for me.
    The advantage of this model is that Dave gets his ad revenue because I’m visiting pages on his site for further reading, but my aggregator remains uncluttered, giving me just the right amount of information with no garbage. Win-win.
    Best regards,

  4. I think you overlooked my point, which is if you provided a full feed, that would be the best. If you have to insert ads to this, that’s fine.
    The article above has ~20 paragraphs. I’d say that 2-3 excerpted paragraphs constitutee the “first few words”.
    I do often get the gist of the article from the excerpt. I’d often read the whole article if it was in front of me, but more often than not, do NOT click to load the article in my browser.
    Yours isn’t the only blog that only posts excerpts and I don’t mean to pick on you. But you brought the topic up in the context of ads (and had previously explained it was to get ad viewship that you didn’t post entire articles), and my point remains that as bad as ads are, I’d prefer them to not seeing all that you (and others) write.
    Life’s too short; as it is I often end up w/40-60 open tabs in firefox. That number would go up by another 15-20 if I were to click on every article that caught my eye, but was presented as only an excerpt. If the entire article were present, inline, I’d quickly read it and be done; as it is, I often am left wondering what you and about 1/2 dozen others had to say on any given topic. Not curious enough to click, though.
    So, gimme the ads if necessary 🙂

  5. Advertising won’t kill RSS anymore than it’s killed any other medium. It will give publishers another option as to how they decide to monetize their content. Content producers that use advertising effectively will be successful. Those that don’t won’t. Same as any other medium. It’s as simple as that.

  6. Dave, for what it’s worth, TUAW (along with its “mother” site, Weblogs, Inc.) announced their ad implementation a week or so ago (in a feed article, no less 😉 ).
    At least for Weblogs, Inc., the justification is that including ads lets them feature *full* articles in the feeds, rather than making you visit the site to read the full text. That sounds like a fair trade-off to me — I get to read the entire article without having to visit the site, and they get some ad revenue for providing the service.

  7. Dave– Weblogs Inc, publisher of TUAW, did announce the RSS ads, and has hosted discussions on this topic to get reader feedback. Furthermore, the Google-delivered TUAW feed ads are the latest in a series of advertising experiments, and by far the least invasive and most relevant. Another point– Jason Calacanis, publisher of Weblogs Inc, has made it loud and clear that two options will be provided: partial posts without ads, and full posts with ads. This seems like a solution everyone can be happy with, and I expect it to become standard in the industry.
    What everyone must realize is that this *is* an industry, and RSS is simply another distribution channel. I agree with you about AMC; that’s an interesting example of consumer expectations being contradicted. But has viewership of AMC gone down overall? Has use of the Web gone down during its commercialization? There was a time when the only sites using pop-ups were the sleaziest porn operations. Now, the NY Times splashes ads in your face–what you say about keeping the front page sacred does not hold in the online edition!
    Blogs are too important to remain commercial-free. The marketplace will work out the details.

  8. Thanks for your note, Brad, but if you read what I’d written, it should be clear to you that I, of all people, fully understand that this is a business and that there must be a revenue stream associated with specific tasks so as to be profitable. I can see that on my own bottom line.
    However, of all the responses I’ve received from TUAW and related, not one has responded to the suggestion that a second excerpt-only feed without advertising be made available. For a variety of reasons, I surmise that would be just as effective and probably more profitable than having a full feed only, with ads, and risk alienating a percentage of your subscribers.

  9. Dave– the second excerpt feed will definitely be available for TUAW and all other WeblogsInc blogs. (As of now, that is written in cement. Not sure if the cement has completely dried yet [g].)
    I didn’t mean to imply that you are anti-commercial. But the title of your post, conveying the idea of corruption, is provocative. My point is that RSS is no more inherently pure than any other information channel. It is merely newer. So was the Web, once. I personally believe that pop-up ads corrupt the Web and the brand integrity of sites that use them. I support blockers. So this whole field must be approached with a combination of capitalization and taste. It seem that we disagree on matters of taste when it comes to RSS. But the marketplace will decide, and as long as publishers release alternate feeds, everyone can be happy.

  10. Well said, Brad. Let people have the option of different feeds — which is what I’ll be doing too, as it happens — and then they can decide which to subscribe to. Of course, we’re conveniently forgetting the masses who will subscribe blindly using tools like the built-in RSS reader in Apple’s new Safari browser, but as a general approach, I certainly agree that the market should decide.

  11. Looking at the aspect of preserving the integrity of information syndication…
    It seems to me that part of the problem there is that in feed aggregator services like Technorati, ads and content might all get lumped together and presented in search results.
    Might it be possible to update the RSS or Atom standard to include an element called “adv” or something like that to signify ad items in a feed, so that search engines could screen them out easily?
    Also, over on my blog CONTENTIOUS I’ve just drafted up a list of suggested guidelines for including ads in feeds responsibly. I’d love to hear input on that. See:
    – Amy Gahran

  12. Dave,
    the solution of providing both types of feeds, full/ads and partial/no-ads, works for me, and I’m glad you’ll be going that route.

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