Guardian feeds its readers

 

The Guardian announced on their site this month that they are switching all of the RSS feeds on their site from partial to full, making them the first major newspaper in the world to do so.

The move has been widely heralded on the web, garnering positive mentions by Google, Mashable and ReadWriteWeb among other blogs, many of which have traditionally been very critical of the mainstream media’s attempts to break into the web.
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There is little doubt that The Guardian’s move is bold, especially in light of the ongoing full vs. partial feed debate that has most media outlets keeping a tight leash on their content in the RSS world.

However, there is much more to the decision than a straightforward change to a full feed. The Guardian seems to be hinting that it is also seizing an opportunity and may be hinting at a future web strategy that is less centralised and more focused on meeting the consumer’s needs, however they choose to access the content.

The details of the move

Although the announcement from The Guardian made it clear that they are moving all of their feeds to full text, it did say that there were two exceptions to that rule.

First, the full feeds may or may not include all of the images or photos from the original story. This is likely out of concern over bandwidth issues. Not only from thousands of RSS readers getting a story instantly, but also any scrapers that may pick up the story linking the images.

Second, the full feeds will not include any text that they are unsure they have the rights to display. Clearly, this is for legal reasons. But it is not exactly clear what content to which they are referring. Most likely, it will involve wire service articles and other content they have obtained clear rights to display on their site, but are unsure about their rights with the feed. In posts where this does apply, the individual entry will be truncated.

However, the biggest revelation in the announcement was, where The Guardian’s feeds currently do not display any advertisements, the full ones will start to at some point in the near future.

This strategy seems to be an attempt to mitigate against the decrease in page views that many would expect from moving an RSS feed to full text. Since readers no longer need to visit the site to get the full story, it would seem logical that fewer would click through. However, FeedBurner, the host of millions of RSS feeds, report no difference in click-throughs between full and partial feeds.

More likely, it is an attempt to both increase readership by providing a unique feature and giving readers an opportunity the view the content of The Guardian in a way it can advertise against.

The rise of RSS advertising

RSS advertising has been a hot topic for bloggers for several years. Many blogs have the majority of their readers viewing their posts via RSS and, until recently, those have been readers to which they have been unable advertise.

FeedBurner was one of the first to enter into the RSS advertising game, creating their own network. However, after FeedBurner was acquired by Google, it was inevitable that Google would soon offer an Adsense solution for RSS, something that finally came to fruition (after several rounds of beta testing) in August.

With widespread advertising opportunities in RSS, it makes more sense than ever to begin including full feeds when practical. Full feeds encourage users to subscribe to the feed and to more actively read them, thus exposing them to more ads. Also, it maintains a near-constant contact with the reader, having them involved with your content, as well as your ads, almost every day.

RSS has the potential to be a major profit centre for mainstream media outlets as they move more to the web. In this regard, The Guardian’s move to RSS appears to be less of an experiment with new media and more of an shrewd business experiment.

The dangers of RSS advertising

Despite the clear benefits of RSS advertisement, there are dangers and problems.

First, RSS advertising does not provide opportunities for placement that regular web advertising does. Where one can display a webpage to display ads in out of the way, though still visible, locations, RSS provides a far more limited set of options. With an RSS feed, you can either put the ads at the top, middle or bottom of the copy since RSS doesn’t provide any real formatting options.

Second, and perhaps most disconcerting, is that RSS advertising targeting has not been as strong as its web counterpart. This can be mitigated by using a controlled system, such as an internal advertising department, but most will still use some form of targeted advertising to fill unsold space.

Finally, readers are accustomed to seeing advertisements on the websites they browse but not in their RSS reader. This could alienate many until such advertisements become more commonplace. It could, theoretically, cause some readers to shy away from a service that has ads, simply because there are so many ad-free options.

The bottom line is that RSS advertising is still in its infancy and has many bugs to work out. The question is not whether more news outlets will start to use full feeds in conjunction with advertisements, but whether the technology is developed enough to attempt it now.

Conclusions

The Guardian’s decision to switch to full feeds is a bold move and it comes with many risks, however, it seems likely that it will help the newspaper compete with blogs and other “new media” outlets.

Simply put, RSS has become the medium of choice for many of the Web’s heaviest news consumers and poll after poll shows a strong preference for full feeds among them.

Most likely, it will not be long before we see other newspapers begin to offer full feeds as well, the main questions right now are going to be how these papers will earn revenue from these feeds and how will readers react to those steps.