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Can Publishers Survive in an RSS Age?

It started with those now-ubiquitous three letters: RSS .

If the increasing popularity of Ask.com’s Bloglines is any indicator, news feed aggregators -- be they Atom, RSS or in one of nine competing XML-based formats -- are dominating how we get our information on the Web.

According to Ask.com, subscribers to its free RSS aggregator Bloglines jumped by 300 percent between June 2005 and June 2006.

And for good reason. Web syndication technology is a convenient and easy way to stay up on a bunch of sites you read.

Easier for everyone, except maybe content publishers who rely on an advertising model that asks readers to look at ads on their front pages in return for the content.

As more readers scan headlines in an aggregator, who's looking at those ads?

"People think about RSS as a double-edged sword and that's definitely true," Evan Hansen, editor-in-chief of Wired News, told internetnews.com.

"It changes the role of the news provider. You need to manage it very carefully to be successful," he said.

"It's a challenge [for publishers]," added J.B. Holston, CEO and president of NewsGator, a maker of syndication software. "We're at the early stages of figuring all that out."

Many publishers started to generate their own RSS feeds in response to the competitive pressure they faced when major portals started offering content by the feed.

"That told the publishers that if they didn't give their users the opportunity to subscribe to a lot of content directly on the site, they were going to run off to Yahoo and others for content," Holston said.

The effect, he added, is that publishers are "atomizing" their own brand by breaking it up into little chunks that folks can subscribe to.

"Having done that, they're now looking at ways of keeping folks on their sites around that consumption, and looking at the best ways to monetize that."

There's no question that the rapid adoption of RSS and aggregators has changed the online publishing game, even as early in the stage adoption is, experts for this story said.

And it's only likely to grow, Feedburner Vice President Rick Klau told internetnews.com.

Firefox already offers RSS management in its browser. Microsoft's next browser, IE7, is next.

"We've got about a 90-day, 120-day window where in that time Internet Explorer 7 will ship and Office 2007 will ship, both of which support feeds at their core," Klau said.

"You're going to see the audience for feeds go from tens of millions of people today to hundreds of millions of people almost overnight."

His company helps publishers get information about who is using their feeds and how they're using them.

"[Publishers] need to look at better understanding the consumption of the feed. Is it growing? Is it declining? Is the content being re-syndicated? Is that feed showing up on other Web sites, generating more traffic back to your Web site?"

Once publishers understand better who's subscribing to their feeds, two things can happen. First, the publishers can serve up better ads, both in the feeds and on their own site.

Second, Klau said, the publisher can then give those readers the right tools to help extend the reach of the publisher's content. For example, Feedburner can "burn" links to link-tagging site del.icio.us and blog ranker Technorati in a publishers' feed.

Because those who subscribe to feeds are a publisher's most loyal readers, they're more likely to use those tools and post links to their favorite Web site, ostensibly increasing page views.

"Most of the publishers we deal with don't see feeds as a threat or a problem, but they have seen them as a challenge they have not been able to understand," Klau said.

Wired's Hansen said RSS syndication has somehow managed to drive up page views for the site, even though the content is essentially available elsewhere in an aggregator.

"The conversion rate for RSS is very low -- it's about the same as a banner ad -- but we're getting so many subscribers that it actually works out in our favor," Hansen said.

Plus, plenty of publishers are playing around with adding inventory by letting users generate more of the content on a site.

The Web site of the San Francisco Chronicle, SFGate.com, is doing that as a customer of NewsGator. It's offering RSS feeds, and letting readers post comments, photos of their own and interact with that content beyond just adding feedback or a comment.

It's all part of a new world of Web publishing in which readers are more engaged and interactive than ever before, Holston added.

Other publishers are syndicating their content and partnering with media companies to make money around those RSS feeds.

Holston said NewsGator is working with some ad agencies and PR firms to take content provided by traditional media, and then redistributing that widely with ad inventory.

"All of this is happening around RSS. Publishers are looking at lots of ways to blow up their own brand and syndicate it broadly. They keep users on a site, but also find ways to monetize that as it gets syndicated."