Nik's Technology Blog

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Is there still a place for site newsletters in the web 2.0 world?

More and more sites are adopting XML syndication technologies such as RSS and ATOM which users can subscribe to.

Pull Technology

Rather than being a push technology like email newsletters, RSS is a pull technology. The subscriber is in full control of the subscription, the publisher does not have a relationship with the subscriber, or need to know their email address. This makes unsubscribing very easy and because you don't need to supply an email you do not need to worry whether your details will be sold on by unscrupulous companies.

RSS Adoption

XML syndication has been around for over 5 years or so, but in the early days the RSS readers available weren't up to scratch, so it took a while for the technology to gather momentum. Nowadays there are plenty of good readers, such as Bloglines, Google Reader etc, which are very polished products that support all the major formats.

RSS Advertising

The last nail in the email newsletters coffin will be the adoption of RSS advertising into the mainstream. Currently Google and Yahoo! are performing tests with advertising on these syndication formats. As soon as these are released the already strong relationship Google has with publishers will allow it to rapidly make RSS very lucrative for website publishers.

Syndication Analytics

Until recently publishers syndicating their content via RSS had a hard time analysing their circulation, that's where companies such as Feedburner have found a niche and continue to provide publishers with additional services on top of basic subscription tracking.

Syndication SPAM

Of course syndicating your content is just another method of publishing. First you had paper, then HTML now XML. You can't irradiate SPAM with RSS, people can set up SPAM blogs etc, but it's the subscribers who are in control of their subscriptions. So as a publisher you know that your 500 subscribers reported by your RSS analytics product of choice are actively reading your content or else they'd simply click to unsubscribe from within their RSS reader application. Compare that to a database of registered subscribers dating back several years; are those users viewing your newsletter in their preview pane and pressing delete rather than unsubscribing via an unsubscribe link?

Content is King

The old adage that 'content is King' is truer than ever with RSS syndication. The problem with giving such power to the subscriber is that your content needs to be top-notch in order to keep your subscribers subscribing. Even though there are guidelines specifying opt-out and unsubscribe methods and practices, which newsletter senders must adhere to, the fact is unsubscribing from RSS is far easier and is not reliant on differing geographic data protection laws.

To Feedburn or not to Feedburn?

I've decided to try out Feedburner. We use RSS to syndicate content at work and have to use server log file analysis to track them, web-beacon based web analytics packages are good for websites, but you can't add Javascript to feeds, which are pure XML. We've tried using .NET to database the hits we were getting on the feeds, but after a short while of testing we were seeing our database growing quickly in front of our eyes, not to mention consuming our precious CPU cycles.

Feedburner not only takes away the hassle of analysing web feed statistics and subscribers, but adds a lot of other functionality too.

My main initial issues with Feedburner were the following:

* What if Feedburner went bankrupt? All the sites syndicating my feed would be using the feedburner URL (unless I pay for the Pro service). How would I be able to change this back to my own URL or another Feedburner type URL? (hopefully saying goodbye to Feedburner would also still hold true if they went bankrupt?) [UPDATED: On June 1st 2007 Google purchased Feedburner, therefore making bankruptcy much less likely :-) ]

* I can't redirect any current traffic from my old Blogger Atom feed on my shared Windows hosting as I don't have access to IIS through my control panel. The file is an .xml file, and I can't use .htaccess for obvious reasons. I would need to use an ISAPI rewrite tool I suppose, which I probably wouldn't be able to get installed in a hosted environment.

* If I want to later upgrade to the Pro service, I would surely have to keep my Feedburner URL even though I could have a URL hosted on my site with this package just so I keep all my subscribers using the same feed URL. (I guess I could use the "saying goodbye to Feedburner" process above?)

Despite these issues, I've decided that the pros of knowing my subscribers etc out way the cons and I'm now syndicating through Feedburner!

I am wondering however, how Feedburner manage to host so many blogs. I assume they have some serious kit to handle the many requests they get. I would be interested to know what the Feedburner IT infrastructure looks like.