Advertising in RSS

I found Kevin’s recent post about advertising in RSS to be particularly timely. Sarai recently started using an RSS reader and noticed that she was seeing ads at the bottom of each post from one particular feed, while I wasn’t.

We’re both using NetNewsWire and were reading the same feed, or so we thought. It turns out I was getting BoingBoing’s RSS directly from their site while Sarai’s was coming from FeedBurner, who was inserting Amazon ads at the bottom of each post. Changing her feed URL to the BoingBoing one fixed the problem.

I knew it was only a matter of time before people started doing this. At least BoingBoing still has an ad-free version of their feed available. I just hope it doesn’t go away, as I’ll be extremely annoyed to have to read the one with the ads.

Kevin says,
The risk here is that the total quantity of advertising does go over some line and people rebel. Another thing that might happen is that aggregators might try to block ad content in feeds.

This backlash is already happening, as evidenced by the proliferation of adblocking software out there. We’re inundated with ads all day long, and the web is only getting worse in this regard. One of the attractions of RSS for me is that I can get content without having to wade through banner ads and other distractions. If there is enough demand for ad blocking in RSS readers, which there undoubtedly will be once the practice becomes more widespread, the developers will have to implement it or risk losing market share. Kind of like what’s been happening with web browsers. Even Microsoft, bringing up the rear, has finally included pop-up blocking in the latest IE update.

I also think the phrase “ad content” is a contradiction in terms. In my experience, ads usually distract from the real content, whether that content is on the web, print, radio, or whatever.

Kevin is right that this presents some interesting technical challenges, but from my point of view the challenge lies in how to best avoid seeing this junk. For web browsing I rely on a combination of the Adblock and Flashblock extensions. The problem with ads in RSS is that they will often be text appearing as part of the article, not an iframe from another server, which is how text ads are usually delivered now. This will make them difficult to remove unless they’re clearly delimited somehow. Banner ads can be stripped out the same way we’re doing it on the web now, but this functionality will have to be implemented in RSS readers, which could take a while.

Some ad-blocking proxies, such as Privoxy, can block images matching commonly-used banner ad dimensions, as well as performing Adblock-style pattern matching on image URLs. Being a proxy server as opposed to a browser extension, it will work with any HTTP client, including RSS readers. I’d prefer to not use something like this; more likely, I’ll just stop reading sites that force me to look at ads in their feeds or use a screen-scraper to make my own ad-free RSS. I think we’ve still got a good deal of time before it gets that bad, but we are now seeing the first steps in that direction.

If only we could get everyone to standardize on <div class="advertising"></div> around their ads, it would save so much bother.


kscaldef says:

On the technical side, I actually doubt that ads in RSS will typically be text. On the contrary, I suspect they will mostly be images. The basic reason is that current state-of-the-art in semantic analysis algorithms isn’t really very good, so you need to a) display a variety of ads in a given context, and b) use a feedback mechanism on actual user response to figure out the most relevant ads. However, with RSS, you only get one chance to generate the feed contents.

On the bigger picture, there’s a basic problem that all media seem to stuggle with. On the one hand, people hate advertising. On the other hand, people are almost universally unwilling to pay what it actually costs to produce and distribute content. However, when pushed, it seems that people hate advertising a bit less than they hate parting with their cash.

However, the subscription alternative is also interesting for RSS, and I have no doubt that people will start experimenting with that soon too. Mostly, though, I suspect that this route will not work as well for small publishers. First, it requires more local infrastructure to handle authentication and billing (although, undoubtedly someone like FeedBurner could do this for you). Second, there is very little to keep someone from just redistributing your content. Big publishers with hoards of lawyers will mostly beat down copyright infringers, but small publishers will have essentially no recourse. For everyone, there is also a significant question of how this would interact with multi-user aggregators like Bloglines and My Yahoo!. Either those aggregators would just not carry subscriber-only feeds at all (which would suck), or you need to figure out some sort of universal, distributed authentication system, which is a) hard, and b) tends to give privacy advocates the heebie-jeebies (see MS Passport).