Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Fine Line Between Aggregation and Splogging: Part Two

Web Feeds

Most bloggers, whether they know it or not, already publish something called a web feed, with every single post. The two major web feed formats are called Atom and RSS (hence the commonly used term "RSS feed").

Depending on how a site author sets it up, a web feed sends either an excerpt from each new post, or a full-length copy of each new post, out to feed readers. Feed readers are software applications (like FeedReader) or web-based applications (like Google Reader) that collect information from web feeds and present it in an organized, easy-to-read format. (Feed readers are also sometimes called feed aggregators, because they aggregate information from different sources in one place.)

I say most bloggers publish a web feed whether they know it or not, because many big blog hosting sites such as Blogger broadcast web feeds automatically as a default option. If you use one of the major blog hosting sites and you don't want to broadcast your feed, in many cases, you have to go into your blog settings, find the feed option, and manually turn the feed off.

Now, there are several advantages to broadcasting a web feed from your blog.

Many blog readers regularly follow upwards of twenty or thirty blogs. It can be very time consuming for a person who reads that many blogs to visit each and every blog they read every single day to check for updates.

However, if a frequent blog visitor downloads a feed reader, or joins a web-based feed reading service, all he or she has to do is subscribe once to the feed of each of her favorite blogs, and thereafter, the feed reader will alert the blog fan whenever one of his or her favorite bloggers makes a new post. This allows blog audience members to spend less time hunting for posts, and more time actually reading them.

Plus, software-based feed readers can actually download posts and excerpts directly to a user's computer.
This allows blog readers with limited or spotty internet access to save blog posts while connected to the internet, and read them later while offline. This also allows blog readers to circumvent their employers' efforts to block employees' access to social media sites at the workplace (which may be bad for certain employers' productivity, but can be good for blog traffic).

In many ways, web feeds can be a win/win for blog readers and blog authors in that feed readers make blog reading easier and less time-consuming. It stands to reason that if more readers have more time to read more blogs, more bloggers can attract a larger audience.

However, let's say you happen to be one of the many bloggers who support their blogging habit via ad revenue.

What happens if a number of your readers start reading your web feeds on their feed reader, and STOP visiting your site?

If you have ads on your site, but a sizable chunk of your audience is reading your feeds exclusively and not ever visiting your site, that means those users of your site are never even seeing your ads. And in many cases, blog ad revenue is based either on click-thru rates (i.e., how many visitors to the blog actually click on the ad to see what it's about) or page impressions (i.e., how many times a web page is viewed).

This is why many bloggers who do host ads on their sites opt to limit their web feed output to excerpts only. This option allows you to send feed subscribers a heads up when you write a new post, along with the title of the post and a brief excerpt that shows what the new post is about. But in order to get the full post, subscribers have to click through to your actual blog. Once there, they see your ads.

However, this also keeps readers from being able to download your full posts and read them at their leisure, and it also keeps readers from reading your full posts in an environment where access to social media sites has been blocked.

So, bloggers who host ads on their sites and depend on ad revenue have the following options when it comes to allowing feeds:

  • Offer greater convenience to readers by posting full feeds, which might in some circumstances wind up drawing a larger audience overall, but which also carries the risk of taking traffic away from the blogger's main site, thereby decreasing the potential for ad revenue.
  • Limit some readers' ease of access to the blog's material by limiting feeds to excerpts, but prevent use of full feeds from drawing traffic, and therefore ad revenue potential, away from the main site.
  • Eliminate feeds altogether, which may prevent many readers from reading the blog altogether, but also provides the best insurance that loyal readers will always visit the author's original site.

Some bloggers have started trying to circumvent the Larger Audience from Feeds v. Greater Revenue from Site Visits issue altogether by providing full feeds, but embedding ads in the feeds themselves, to ensure that the original blogger receives some ad revenue regardless of whether a post is read on the original site or in a feed reader.

Web Feeds and Splogging

So, I've already discussed the inherent advantages and disadvantages to broadcasting a web feed from your blog.

But there is a much more insidious disadvantage to broadcasting your feed that I have yet to talk about, and that is the connection between web feeds and splogging.

You see, the way many sploggers acquire the original content that they copy, without permission, to their spam sites, is by simply subscribing to the bloggers' own web feeds.

A splogger subscribes to a blogger's feed in the same way a reader would. But instead of reading the content, the splogger uploads that content to the splogger's own website.

One way to protect yourself, as a blogger, from splogging is to stop broadcasting feeds from your website. But this may upset some of your loyal readers who rely on feed aggregator services to organize and monitor their favorite blogs.

And the fact is, sploggers can also acquire content fairly easily without using web feeds. There are all sorts of programs out there crawling the web right now, even as I type, that do nothing but find text-rich web content, copy it, and upload it directly to splogging sites.

There is no way to stop sploggers entirely from stealing your content. Even if you found a way to block splogger bots from scanning your site for text, a splogger could still manually copy and paste your content in seconds flat.

The only currently effective way to fight sploggers that I know of is to go after them after they take your content, either by pursuing legal action, by contacting other bloggers who are being exploited by the site and asking them to help you put collective pressure on the splogger to desist, or or by complaining about the splog site frequently on your own blog, thus forcing the splogger to display negative content about his or her own site, on his or her own site, if he or she wants to keep stealing your content.


Anonymous said...

Maybe it's selfish of me to feel this way, but I don't read anything that doesn't have an RSS feed. I'm currently following about ~150 feeds and just don't have time for anything that doesn't make it easy for me.

I think that ultimately this is the problem with any of these solutions: no feed, no content in the feed, ads in the feed. There is just so much content out there that any roadblock between the site and readership becomes an easy reason to drop the site and never read it again.

(I'm really enjoying all the posting you've been doing lately.)

Jaelithe said...

Woah. If posts about intellectual property issues get me comments from the elusive Listener, then I shall have to post about intellectual property issues more often.