Distribution without tears

Written somewhere over Kansas on the way to WordCamp for Publishers. Please look me up if you want to chat about this post.

This is a shameless pitch for a plugin to WordPress my company just published but there are also broader ideas proposed here and I would love your feedback.

SmartNews is a mobile news aggregation app. The backend tech is pretty nifty. It uses machine learning and what we call a “discovery algorithm” to expose users to new points of view that they might not see if they are using a social network or personalized news service to read their news. You can read more about that stuff here, that’s not what this blog post is about.

SmartNews aggregates news from our partners. If we have no news, we have nothing for our users to read. While it’s possible to crawl the web and pull in stories as we find them on the open web, we would prefer a relationship with each of our publishing partners so they send us their articles and feel in control of how their content is used by SmartNews. We want our partners to feel as if the SmartNews app is an extension of their CMS. If our partners are not successful, neither will SmartNews.

While we do send traffic to our publishers (lots of it) that’s not the only benefit we offer. We have architected the product to offer a snappier, native view (think of Safari or Chrome’s reader mode) of the articles. Because this view is hosted on our app, our users can read while offline. The SmartView page in SmartNews was designed to serve the subway commuter in Tokyo where signals were spotty.

But we wanted to make sure publishers had a benefit when readers chose to read their articles via the SmartView page. Thus the SmartFormat feed spec was born. SmartFormat is a simple variant of the RSS standard with a couple new elements to provide greater portability of not only a publisher’s articles but also their advertising and analytics.

The <snf:advertisement> element lets publishers provide an ad tag which we run on the SmartView page. Because this is the publisher’s ad tag, the publisher keeps 100% of the revenue.

The <snf:analytics> element lets the publisher send along the analytics bug so they can include SmartView pageviews in the total pageviews that they see on their dashboard.

Combined, both the <snf:advertisment> and <snf:analytics> allow for portability of not only content but also advertising. Now when a publisher distributes a full text feed to SmartNews they also are distributing the monetization and analtyics footprint as well. While other platforms require you to opt in to revenue shares on the platform’s advertising and analytics, SmartNews lets you use and optimize your own, dynamically, on a feed endpoint you control.

Now to the fun part. If you’re running on WordPress, we have a simple plugin that will open up two text boxes, one for and one for and will build a SmartFormat feed compliant with the SmartFormat feed spec. In order to get distribution on SmartNews, all you have to do is apply to be a publisher on SmartNews, install the plug-in, then you’re ready to go!

Settings page of SmartNews SmartFormat plugin

As for the broader proposal, I was curious (and I could very well be looking in the wrong places) why no one has attempted to extend RSS in this way before? Feedburner had something where they injected Google Ads into their RSS feeds but it never really took off because those ads only ran in the feed or feedreader, not on the downstream aggregation sites or platforms. As much as I am loath to try and extend a standard, wouldn’t it benefit publishers to have a place where they can add their ad tag, analytics scripts, and even subscription CTAs so that the business travels along with the editorial?

<snf:advertisement> and <snf:analytics> work great for SmartNews but what about extending it for others? The more platforms that accept this extended feed, the more incentive there is for publishers to create these feeds. Seems like the classic win-win all around. Besides the bureaucratic lift of trying to extend a “standard” such as RSS am I missing something?

NOTE: The SmartFormat plugin for WordPress is available for download on wordpress.org.

Thanks to @MrYhira for the inspiration for this plugin.

Feature List for an RSS Reader

With the announcement of the sunsetting (never did like that word) of Google Reader, a discussion was kicked off at work over what features would make up an ideal RSS reader. Everyone at GigaOM is a voracious reader so we like to compare information processing tools and techniques like foodies discuss recipes.

Here’s my short list:

  • Must be able to import an OPML file. The easiest way to get started is to load up your existing collection of feeds.
  • Must export OPML. Never trust a platform that doesn’t support data portability.
  • Must keep track of what you’ve read.
  • Must have a mobile version that syncs what you’ve read with on the desktop, mobile, or anywhere else
  • Must support pubsubhubub so news is pushed and realtime if the feed supports it.
  • Must be able to browse by feed or as an aggregated, reverse-chron sorted river of news
  • Must support browsing by headline, excerpt, or full-text
  • Must support rich media so the reader can be used to browse video, podcasts, and photo feeds. Bonus points if you can output a photo feed as a screensaver.

Then there are the extra features are what would put one reader above others

  • Provide search across all feeds. This is your slice of the best of the internet after all.
  • Add the ability to star or otherwise mark items for simple re-tweet behavior. Let people publish a feed of these curated items so others can follow your information exhaust. Even better is to re-create the “share with note” feature in Google Reader and you’ve got a light-weight tumblr network.
  • Add the ability to follow other people and add their feed bundles to your collection. This was the single best feature of Google Reader and the one that, when taken away, killed off the future of the product.
  • Decay. Add a natural decay to feeds that do not get a lot of your attention. Provide a bookmarklet that lets you grab and add feeds as you find interesting posts across the internet but feel safe in the fact that if you let a feeds’ post go unread, that the feed itself will eventually drop off your main view, keeping things clean and focused.
  • In the day and age of Twitter & Facebook, have a pre-set filter that reads your social feeds and parses out all the links you add and puts them into a folder which you can search across or curate & share back out.

Finally, there is the uber-geeky-cool feature that I built with the MyBlogLog team, the Interest Engine. The vision was that you would pipe all your feeds through the reader and the tags on all those feeds and shares would feed the algorithm to improve what bubbles up in your aggregated newsfeed. If you subscribe to a bunch of blogs about “fly fishing,” use that as a signal and focus posts from other, more generic feeds on your interests so that if a story about Fly Fishing flows across your New York Times feed, it gets higher placement.

So that’s my list of MVP features & nice to have differentiators.  Did I miss any?


Some choice words from Chris Wetherell, one of the original engineers on Google Reader, on the effervescent business opportunity of the GReader community.

Dave Winer shares his thoughts on how he would build RSS anew. Centralized OPML profiles (as were offered by GReader) are key.

What’s Old is New

When you’ve been around long enough, you start to see old ideas, re-invented.

These guys have managed to crack the nut of how to monetize social media by charging $35 to print your twitter stream onto toilet paper which you can then use in the restroom. More details from Laughing Squid.

Roll back seven years to when RSS was all the rage and you have the following which, somehow, stuck in my memory as something I blogged about way back when.

This was slightly more ambitious because they would print the stuff right in your bathroom and offered a marketplace which allowed advertisers to buy ad space. No, I never did figure out what “biometric user identification” meant.

Google Reader Power Readers – unlocked

Browsing my feeds this morning I saw an ad for Google’s Power Readers feature appended on the bottom of a TechCrunch post. The ad pointed to the Google Power Reader page, an editorially crafted bundle of feeds made up of linkblog posts, generated by celebrities hand-picked and using Google Reader. This is the first time I’ve seen Google step up and take such an extensive editorial role in a product to the point where they are actively promoting an editorial voice.

It’s a smart way to promote not only the sharing feature of Google Reader but also Google Reader as place to consume feeds. My only criticism is that the subscribe option for this bundle of feeds is limited to . . . Google Reader.


There is a way to eventually make it to the source url for this bundle but you need to go down the path as if you were going to add it to your Google Reader account (meaning you need to login to Google) before they tell you the URL for the Journalists Shared Items page (via a re-direct URL which contains “source=prhomejournalistsall” which gives us a hint that the PR department is behind this. From there you can get to the RSS feed and subscribe to it as you will.

For kicks I’ve added the feed into a My Yahoo page with a few extra bits from Yahoo editorial added in as a bonus. A bundle of bundles if you will. You can grab it here.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Feedburner Stats Way Down

I noticed a big drop in the number of Feedburner subscribers to my blog over the past few days with the number of subscribers dropping nearly 50% starting sometime Thursday last week (May 8th). I noticed one other person reporting a drop and they pointed to Google Reader numbers being the culprit and, sure enough, if you look at the two graphs below, my Google Reader numbers are down significantly (230 vs. 60) but other readers (Netvibes for example) are down as well.

Anyone else notice this?

Google Reader adds Search. Why Competition is Good.

Google Reader Search Box

Just a few days after posting about the new Bloglines beta and how it was nice to re-discover their search your feeds feature, Google announced that they’ve finally added a search box to their Reader.

I’m staying with Bloglines right now for the novelty of it but I’ve noticed;

  1. Things that get marked “read” don’t seem to always stay that way, still trying to figure out the pattern
  2. I’m missing not having a decent mobile access (i.bloglines.com doesn’t really do it for me) to read feeds on the go

Competition is a wonderful motivator. There was a whole lot of hoopla around the Google Reader API that was going to allow developers to extend Google Reader in all sorts of intersesting ways. Niall Kennedy did a whole dissection of the API and reverse engineered the Google Reader so people could see how it was put together. That was in December 2005 – now I can only find one example of a product that uses this promised but yet to be released API. I guess things got re-prioritized – we’ve all been there.

At least there is OPML which makes it easy to jump around. It sure is nice to have the freedom to experiment and walk if something better comes along.


Categorized as Uncategorized Tagged

Bloglines beta – so nice to see ya.


The Time & Newsweek of the Web 2.0 blogosphere both mention the re-launch of Bloglines. It’s great to see another reader on the market just for variety’s sake. I moved to Google Reader a while ago as my main reader mostly because of it’s mobile interface which looks great on the Blackberry. I had left Bloglines a good while back because of their annoying tendency to mark everything in a folder as “read” just because you opened it.

In the release notes, they say they will address the lack of mobile support in a future release. If they solve this, I may actually switch back to Bloglines because they have two other features that are not in Google Reader.

1. People wonder why I have Earthlink’s Reader as my home page on my browser. I tell them it’s the best way to browse full text feeds. I have my “firehose” feeds that post several times a day loaded up there and the Earthlink Reader is set up to scroll very quickly through them and has a handy marker which shows you when you start getting into articles that were current during your last session.

As you can see in the screenshot up top, there’s a nice browse feature which toggles between the My Yahoo-like tile view which they call “Quick View” and a river of news view which scrolls the articles full text called “Full View.” Bloglines even includes “3-pane view” for all you Outlook/Newsgator junkies.


2. Search. Logging back into Bloglines tonight I was re-acquainted with the Bloglines search. I had stopped using this feature since I left Bloglines and the only vestige of the whole sharing of your subscriptions community I had on Bloglines was from an old ego-search that used the aggregated subscriptions of all the Bloglines users as a way to focus on hits from quality blogs. From the main window, you can search and an advanced option gives you a whole lot of power that, as far as I can tell, isn’t available on any other reader platform. The integration to Ask’s broader web search is a bit clumsy but hopefully that will be addressed now that there seems to be renewed attention on Bloglines as a product.


The ability to limit keyword searches to your subscribed feeds or search any other Bloglines user’s public feeds, is a very cool option. No need to bookmark things for later, just let it flow by knowing that you can always reach in and retrieve it, using your subscription list as a helpful filter on sources you trust. I suppose you could do this with Google Coop or Lijit but Bloglines does it in an integrated way.

I’ll have to play around with this for a while; I noticed just now that Bloglines doesn’t seem to refresh as often for instance and I don’t see a “refresh” link anywhere on the Beta UI Paul Querna from Ask posts in the comments that Bloglines refreshes every 5 minutes or you can use “r” as a hotkey.

Update: Below is the breakdown of my feed subscribers as of this week. It’ll be interesting to see if people switch to Bloglines in any quantity.


Update II: Nice, detailed review of the new Bloglines from Nathan Weinberg at Inside Google who interviewed Eric Engleman, the new GM of Bloglines.

Categorized as Office Tagged ,

Facebook and RSS out

Dave Winer pointed out that RSS feeds are now available for your Friends Status, Friends Posted and Notifications pages in Facebook. The friends updates have been around for a while but the notifications feed might be new. An astute comment on the Techcrunch post about this news says:

The news feed really was a stroke of genius. As simple of concepts as they are, the feed plus the simple little “X” that lets you remove an item from your history are the two most important features.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two feeds they’ve opened up have direct competitors. Status plays to Twitter and Jaiku, while Posted Items play to Digg and Pownce.

Without any worthwhile competitor to a comprehensive news feed of friends, I’m betting Facebook will keep that info behind the wall.

Facebook Opens up their Data Feeds

There is no real competition to the comprehensive News feed and Mini-feed which is core to Facebook’s value as a destination site. Facebook’s FAQ on their RSS feeds explains the difference between the published RSS feeds and the News and Mini feeds:

The Atom feed or RSS feed of your friends’ notes, statuses, or posted items or an individual user’s notes, statuses, or posted items contains that content only, whereas News Feed contains stories about photo postings, relationship changes, etc. Also, your News Feed won’t show a story every time one of your friends posts a note to Facebook; your News Feed only contains the stories we think you’ll be the most interested in. The RSS or Atom feeds of a user’s notes or your friends’ notes, for example will contain every note posted.

There are subtle nuances in what Facebook shows you. There is some “special sauce” which calculates what “they think” you’ll be interested in. That’s not something an RSS feed can calculate unless it can be vectored against meta-data about your friends and your stated interests.

This is where it gets interesting. Both Fred Wilson and Mark Mezrich post at length about yesterday. You can pull in all the status updates and news updates you want from all over the web but it’s all just noise unless it can be filtered in a unique and meaningful way. We’re approaching a world where you should be able to swap your friend networks in and out as a social filter on anything you look at online.

Last.fm is great for finding people with similar musical tastes and finding new music you might like. What about using that same network to find something good to read? How about swapping out your favorite Yelp restaurant reviewers and directing them to pick out the best stove for your kitchen? Like the device used by the eye doctor when you get new glasses, swap in a new lens and make what is blurry today crystal clear. Is the solution to make social networks as interchangeable as the lenses at the eye doctor?

Yahoo! Pipes : A Giant Erector Set for the Web

I’m not a programmer but I love to tinker. Much to the chagrin of my parents, I liked nothing better than taking things apart and seeing how they worked. The thing that made the early web so much fun was the View > Page Source command in the browser which allowed me to take apart any website and figure out how it was put together.

APIs and XML pushed that all into the background for weekend duffers like me. All the parameters that went into building an interactive page were hidden from me. Many sites would expose bits of what was going on in the URL field and I could still play around by swapping out variables that I could see in plain text but the ability to parse out the results and display them in format that I wanted was beyond my basic skills and I could only work on one page at a time, unable to string the output of one page to the input of another.

Today’s release of Yahoo! Pipes is just the product I need to begin to muck around again. Choose any RSS feed as a data source and break down the URL into it’s basic components. Drag in any of the various modules to substitute parameters, filter, join, sort, or otherwise transform the results and harness the output as an RSS feed which you can easily subscribe or embed into your site.

Pipes has embraced the View Source culture. Every published Pipe on the system can be cloned, stripped apart and repurposed for your own use. You can nest pipes inside one another or string them together so that early pipes become the building blocks for more complex routines.

Want to read a mashed up feed of the top autoblogs filtered to specific luxury European autos? No problem.

Looking for the latest flickr photos and weather conditions at Whistler? You got it.

My own itch was trying to figure out if I should buy something off of my local Craigslist, bid for it on eBay, or just buy it outright. Instead of daily searches on a series of sites, I now have one place to go.

Big ol’ caveat. This is not a finished product! Edward, Daniel, Jonathan, Pasha, and Kevin have created a beautiful platform but this is just the first step in an exciting direction which is already generating lots of debate. Pipes levels the playing field and invites the masses into the sandbox. Let’s all play nice together and bend those tubes around and make something wonderful.


Subscribe to PDF files via iTunes

Steve Rubel points to an interesting development of Apple’s iTunes client.

The addition of PDFs to iTunes is more than just a mildly interesting occurrence. iTunes, as a ubiquitous cross-platform app, has its own embedded browser that powers the music store. It’s conceivable that Apple could turn iTunes into a dedicated RSS reader that operates like Safari and become a clearing house for all subscription-based content. In addition, wireless is on the way according to this patent filing.

Taking this a step further, it’s also highly possible that if iTunes enhances its DRM to include other enclosures it will move into e-books and or e-magazines. Oh, and where might those eBooks be consumed?

– via Micropersuation

I’d take this one step further. One of the more lucrative lines of business for the news business is the timely delivery of profiled news. Could iTunes become a platform for newspapers to delivery their premium content to subscribers? With a built-in browser and DRM, the iTunes client becomes much more attractive than email or even some of the current branded RSS readers such as the one available from USA Today. 


Categorized as Uncategorized Tagged ,