It was inevitable, I suppose, but I’m still upset about this change in the blogosphere: One of the new announcements from Google’s AdSense program is that they’re beginning to support adding targeted advertising in RSS feeds.
What’s an RSS feed? Different people are going to give you different answers, but my view is that it’s an information syndication and communication channel that lets me use tools to track changes and updates to lots of Web sites with a single unified application. So, for example, instead of visiting newswire Web sites or popping over to weblogs from my colleagues and friends, I just use a delightful tool called NewsGator and easily keep track of almost 150 different Web sites and RSS feeds simultaneously.
Until this week, RSS has all been ad free, and one of the truly great things about using an RSS aggregator, as they’re called, is that I’ve been able to focus on the content, not the presentation: even the most funky Web design produces a simple text-only RSS feed.
But this week two of the larger Web sites added advertising to their feeds, one with, as far as I can tell, an independent ad network and the other with Google’s AdSense program.
No warning, no “we need to generate more revenue from our site, can you suggest ways to help us out”, no “please answer our survey about ways we can generate revenue, ranking them from least annoying to most annoying.” Just ads that popped up in the RSS feeds from two major Web sites, Web sites run by smart, future-thinking companies that I would have expected have more savvy than just to foist this upon us subscribers.
But let me show you what I’m talking about so you can see for yourself…
First up, here’s how the tremendously popular geek and computer aficionado discussion site Slashdot now looks in NewsGator:
About 50% of the feed section is now an advertisement from the Slashdot site. Imagine if they designed their Web site that way. Would you ever go back to a site where 50% of their page is advertising? I wouldn’t.
A second site that disappoints in this same manner is The Unofficial Apple Website, a part of the Weblogs, Inc. collection of Weblogs. They’re using Google’s AdSense for RSS:
I find this even more in-your-face, and they’re sensitive to the reaction from this change too; they actually posted a note about the addition of the advertisements entitled RSS feed gets Google Adsense. Rather to my surprise, though, the comments attached to that message aren’t 100% against this idea, and some seem fairly cool with this change. I can only assume that these folk read a very small number of RSS feeds in their aggregators, somehow.
Before you sharpen your virtual quill, be advised that it’s not because these advertisements mark the entry of ‘crass commerce’ or ‘the invasion of capitalism’ – I mean, a glance at my Weblog shows that I too have overt advertising as a method of monetizing my traffic and offsetting the cost of producing and maintaining this Weblog.
The problem is that it’s changed after the fact. This violation of expectations is the same reason that I now really dislike AMC TV: for years it was advertising-free classic movies, but now they have as many ad breaks as a major network channel.
Further, I can now envision a future where everyone is injecting advertising into their RSS feeds, and I can see how it could eventually kill off RSS aggregators and RSS newsreaders entirely. It’s one thing to have 45 new RSS entries, of which two or three have an advert jarringly stuck in the middle, and something else entirely when 50, 60 or even 75% of those RSS feeds have ads and I’m looking at an aggregate page that’s more advertising than content, a page that has far less visual coherence and is far less readable and understandable. Even the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are smart enough to keep advertising away from the middle of their front-page columns!
Think I’m being pessimistic? Notice that Feedburner is already telling its customers (including me, were I to opt for it) that, yes, Feedburner will support Google AdSense adverts in feeds.
But ranting isn’t very productive. Here’s a proposed solution for these sites, before I become one of the first of what I believe will be a dramatic wave of people to unsubscribe to their RSS feeds: offer an excerpt-only advertising-free feed. That way, if I can handle the advertising, I can subscribe to the full feed and get the entire article in my aggregator, and if I hate the ads – and, believe me, I do – then I can just get the first 3-4 lines of each article and decide if I want to visit the site to read the rest. If I visit the site, then present the article to me with advertising (as this page has ads) and I’d be okay with that.
If not, then I request these sites change their cute little orange “RSS” buttons to green buttons that say “R$$” instead.