You may have heard of RSS, a way to syndicate your content on to other people’s Websites as well as to deliver your latest, greatest offers and content direct to your customers, bypassing all their spam filters. For online merchants, RSS offers a new and exciting content delivery channel.
As you might know, RSS stands for “really simple syndication.” At its core, it really is simple. An RSS feed is merely an XML file that you host on your Web server — it kind of looks like HTML code. But don’t let its simplicity fool you; in the hands of a sophisticated marketer, the potential applications for RSS are huge. As a technology, it has been around for more than a few years now. It just hasn’t picked up steam until fairly recently — the upswing due in large part to the popularity of blogging.
People like to follow the blogs of others as much as they like to write their own blogs — perhaps more so. RSS makes that process easy and efficient. In fact, the only really practical way to follow numerous blogs on a regular basis is to use an RSS aggregator or newsreader. Can you imagine the alternative — visiting each blog’s Website one by one? Who’d have the time for that!
According to a Pew Internet & American Life study conducted last year, 5% of survey respondents subscribed to RSS feeds via newsreader software or a Web-based aggregator. Extrapolated out to all online Americans, that would amount to 6 million people who are consuming news and other information from blogs and content-rich Websites via RSS.
And that figure represents only those who knowingly subscribe to RSS feeds; many others subscribe to RSS feeds but don’t realize it. Users of the free My Yahoo! service, for example, can subscribe to RSS feeds without even being exposed to the term “RSS.” Yahoo! search results are peppered with listings containing an “Add to My Yahoo!” link. And countless blogs prominently display a clickable “Add to My Yahoo!” graphic. Clearly, a Yahoo! user need not know RSS is the enabler of such functionality.
Thankfully, bloggers don’t need to think too hard about RSS either. In fact, RSS is part and parcel of most blog software and hosted blog services nowadays: The RSS feeds are generated automatically without human intervention. So it’s not as if you have to go out of your way as a blogger to create an RSS feed.
But with other applications of RSS outside of blogs — like the publication of new stock arrivals or the latest clearance items — it’s a little more involved. You could instruct your e-commerce platform or content management system to generate the required XML files. Amazon.com, for instance, extended its e-commerce platform to serve up a range of product-related RSS feeds, broken down into dozens of product categories (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/subst/xs/syndicate.html).
Or you could use a hosted RSS creation service that “scrapes” content from Web pages and creates an RSS feed automatically. Online retailer eHobbies employs such a service to generate three RSS feeds: Bestsellers, New Items, and Now Back in Stock. Because the Yahoo! Stores platform that eHobbies is on doesn’t support RSS feed creation, it has opted for a hosted “scraping” approach provided by my company, Netconcepts.
AGGREGATORS AND NEWSREADERS
Web-based aggregators are Websites that allow you to sign up for an account and create a personalized start page that displays the latest posts from your favorite blogs. My Yahoo! is one of many examples of Web-based aggregators.
Alternatively, you could follow RSS feeds by installing software on your PC that grabs the latest headlines via RSS. Rather than visiting a Web page to catch up on the latest happenings on your favorite blogs, you would launch a program on your computer. That program could be a stand-alone application whose sole job is to pull RSS feeds from the Web and display them for you, or it could be a plug-in that extends the functionality of a program that you already have — such as Outlook, Firefox, or Internet Explorer — to include RSS reading.
For instance, if you are a Microsoft Outlook user, you can buy the NewsGator plug-in and then use Outlook to catch up on the latest happenings in the blogosphere. You can even forward an item from an RSS feed to a colleague right within Outlook just as you would forward an e-mail — with the click of a button.
RSS adoption, I believe, will reach a tipping point very soon and go mainstream with the next release of Internet Explorer, IE7. This will offer RSS reading capability built right into the browser — no plug-ins required. Considering the base that Explorer has, that will make for a lot of potential RSS subscribers.
SYNDICATION TO OTHER SITES
As previously mentioned, one of the key benefits of RSS is the ability to syndicate your content to other Websites. This could be in the form of special offers, newly published articles, white papers, research studies, discussion forum posts, and so forth. An RSS feed doesn’t have to contain your blog posts. It can really be for anything. And if your syndicated content is of value to a Website owner’s visitors, it’s a good bet that he’ll be receptive to serving that content on his site.
Associated with your content are links that are included in the RSS feed. Those links will, of course, generate some amount of traffic for you, from visitors clicking through on the Website displaying your content.
Those links will also provide you with a search engine optimization benefit, in the form of increased link popularity and keyword-rich link text. The additional links are registered by the search engines as a “vote” or a “thumbs up” that builds your Google PageRank score and ultimately improves your search engine rankings. But the link text is of particular note: The major search engines — Google, Yahoo!, and MSN Search — all weigh heavily the underlined text used in the link pointing to your Web page.
So if a link used the words “click here” in the link text, it would get the benefit of a PageRank “vote,” but the context of the vote would be all wrong — unless of course you were going after a high ranking for the search term “click here.” What you really want are keywords that people — specifically your customers and prospective customers — search for.
In many cases, you can control what link text is used on other Websites through RSS. When a site owner pulls content from an RSS feed, he typically uses the item’s title as the link text when linking to that item. So by paying careful attention to the words you employ in those titles, you can significantly affect your rankings for selected search terms.
Consider, for example, that the number-one search result in Google for the search term “trustrank” is an article that has been syndicated via RSS, published on the popular technology news site Slashdot. You can see that the URL for this article contains “from=RSS,” a telltale sign that the article link was disseminated exclusively through an RSS feed.
Further inspection confirmed that this URL does not appear anywhere on Slashdot’s site, except within its RSS feed. Yet this article has achieved a top ranking in Google. I credit this in large part to the inbound links and the link text that was used. I doubt that this article would have achieved a number-one ranking for “trustrank” if Slashdot hadn’t incorporated that word into its RSS item title, because then fewer sites would have included the word in their link text.
THE LEADING EDGE OF RSS
The latest, most widely adopted version of RSS is RSS 2.0. Why should you care? Because RSS 2.0 supports what are called enclosures, which include audio and video. This is where podcasting comes in. If you have an RSS 2.0 feed, you can incorporate audio clips saved in MP3 format into that feed. That audio then gets disseminated to your RSS subscribers. Those subscribers with podcast-capable newsreaders would then automatically download the MP3 files onto their computer and ultimately onto their MP3 player. So, for example, a user of Apple iTunes who subscribes to podcast feeds would, overnight, automatically obtain the latest MP3 files referenced in these feeds and synchronized with his iPod. The user would then wake up, grab their iPod out of its dock, and listen to the latest podcasts on his morning jog or commute into the office.
You can podcast video too, although with video it is not something you can play on an iPod currently. You can, however, watch these video clips at your leisure on your computer. A new buzzword has even been invented that refers specifically to the podcasting of video: “vodcasting.”
I have encouraged a client of mine, Steve Spangler, CEO of Colorado-based science-toys catalog Steve Spangler Science, to get into podcasting and vodcasting as a way to reach out and build relationships with the company’s primary customer base, namely teachers. His podcasting has been very warmly received. He mixes it up between audio-only interviews, audio-only monologues, and video segments of science-experiment demonstrations.
As a panelist at the recent Shop.org Annual Summit in Las Vegas, Spangler regaled a packed room with his exploits as a blogger and podcaster. It seems to be working. Thirteen percent of last month’s online sales were attributable to his blog, and the majority of his blog posts this past month have been podcasts.
EVOLUTION OF RSS FEEDS
As the RSS technology matures, it will catch up with the functionality available to e-mail marketers. In fact, you can already track your RSS subscribers. And you can track which items they read, using “Web bugs” like those that get surreptitiously embedded into everyone’s e-mail campaigns to measure “opens.” Similarly, click-throughs from an RSS feed can be monitored using click-tracked URLs, in the same way e-mail click-throughs are tracked. Feedburner is a painless and inexpensive third-party service for tracking RSS subscribers, click-throughs, and reads.
Some of the more advanced e-mail marketers personalize their e-mails to the individual subscribers, taking into account such things as the subscriber’s interests, order history, and surfing behavior. You can do this with RSS as well, providing a personalized feed for each individual subscriber. Software company VMware provides a customized RSS feed in which subscribers can specify their areas of interest and get a feed that focused solely on those areas of interest.
When new channels that reach consumers come into existence, advertisers quickly follow. RSS is no exception: Currently a small but growing number of Websites sell advertising space within their RSS feeds. Of those that do, most use an RSS advertising network, such as Pheedo. Introducing ads into a feed for the first time is a delicate matter. The popular tech blog Signal vs. Noise tested the insertion of ads into its RSS feed and received such reader backlash that it pulled the ads and suspended the trial.
With the accelerating pace of technology, the reaction time for companies to absorb and leverage new technology is shrinking. RSS is a technology that is going to grow quickly. When it comes to offering RSS feeds, don’t wait; find your feet now, and you’ll stand a much better chance of acquiring and retaining a loyal RSS subscriber base into the future.
Stephan Spencer is founder/president of Netconcepts, a Madison, WI-based e-marketing agency, and coauthor of the Multichannel Merchant special report “State of Search Engine Marketing for Retailers 1.0.”
Key benefits of RSS to online merchants
- Bypasses spam filters
- Encourages links and garners PageRank score
- Serves as a content delivery channel to your affiliates, giving them something they can republish on their own Websites
- Easy for your subscribers to manage communications from you without clogging up their inboxes
- Allows you to change content midstream (no need to push an “unsend button” as with e-mail)
- Is the only way your blog can be included in Google’s new Blog Search (http://blogssearch.google.com)
- Increases the likelihood of media coverage because RSS is a hot topic retailers are slow to embrace.
Bypassing the spam filters
It isn’t through technological wizardry or any other magic that RSS feeds avoid the spam filters’ chopping block. Spam filtering within the newsreader or aggregator simply isn’t required, because spammers can’t infiltrate others’ RSS feeds. It technically isn’t possible for a Viagra message to sneak into your RSS feed, at least not without someone hacking your server. And what hacker would bother editing RSS feeds when he could steal credit-card numbers or deface the home page instead?
There is no need for a spam filter in a newsreader program because the subscribers are always in control. They choose only those RSS feeds to subscribe to that they find value in and trust. And if an RSS feed falls out of favor with subscribers, the delete button provides them with immediate and enduring relief.
If you are delivering your content via an e-mail newsletter, you’re at the mercy of the spam filters installed on the recipients’ PC and on the e-mail server by their ISP. That’s pretty scary when you consider that one-third of permission-based e-mails get unfairly blocked.