Interview: FeedBurner’s Dick Costolo on RSS Ads

I got a chance to talk to Dick Costolo, CEO of FeedBurner recently. You may have seen their Feed for Thought post on the state of RSS that was published yesterday, it makes for interesting reading in and of itself. In this interview Dick talks about their new ad network, the RSS in ads debate, competition and feed adoption among other things.

It makes for a cracking read, and marks the start of a series of discussions with leading companies affecting the blogosphere we live and work in. Enjoy…

Q. I heard the FeedBurner office has been in overdrive the last couple of weeks with the rollout of the FeedBurner Ad Network, how’s that going and can you tell us a little bit about the whole product?

Sure. We have actually been in overdrive on several initiatives lately, all of which map nicely to the service categories within FeedBurner (analyze, optimize, publicize, monetize). One of these initiatives is the ad network, which was officially announced – with much fanfare, some applauding and occasional whistling – at this year’s AdTech show in NYC. I would be remiss and in trouble with colleagues if I didn’t point to the details on our site.

We are expanding the network every day and we plan to roll out additional monetization services for publishers of all sizes. I can certainly tell you what I’m most excited about regarding the product. Most importantly, it is not just an ad network, because I think that ad services divorced from other integrated publisher services are a lost cause. Our ad network services and other optimize/publicize/analyze services will, over time, be highly integrated in terms of feedback mechanisms, statistics tracking and anomolies, cross-promotion and other publisher tools. Having said that, the first public version doesn’t come with laser beams and machine gun turrets, but we have a very specific plan, and we’re excited about it.

One capability the service will have soon is a nice ‘sell-side’ publisher approval queue. Publishers who have opted to participate in the network will have the ability to approve or reject any ad that is queued for inclusion in their feed. These kinds of sell-side capabilities will be further enhanced as we iterate on the network, and I think that’s an important trend here.

Q. YPN have just announced their entry into the RSS advertising market, albeit a closed beta only available to a few so far. Google have been running their RSS ads for a little while, again in beta. Are you worried about being forced out of the market by these big players? What sets FeedBurner apart from its competition?

Well, we are the leader in this market. Our rate of publisher adoption is now almost 1000 new feeds a day. We have been able to create, shape, and lead the market because of our speed of innovation and customer service, and we will continue to stress those competencies within the company.

FeedBurner has critical mass in the marketplace and benefits accrue to the service provider with critical mass. If we are smart and channel these benefits back to our customers then we will continue to be successful. We understand that as we innovate, other companies will release like services, and we expect that. We have to continue to innovate and protect our innovations.

I worry about many things — we have enormous challenges ahead of us — but I don’t worry much about our position in the market. I would add that the constant feedback you get from customers when you have critical mass allows you to pick up on trends and product requirements at a remarkable pace.

Q. There has been bitter debate over ads in RSS. Personally I think that as the adoption of RSS grows, it’s inevitable, and sensible for people to monetize it. It’s simply another content delivery platform. How do you view the debate, and how do you answer critics of ads in RSS?

I’ll answer the second part of the question first. I think some of the critics of ads in RSS have made very cogent and thoughtful arguments, and I think to ignore these arguments is unwise, because they are a part of the market. Which leads me to my answer to your first question: I think the market will decide what works. That sounds like a bailout answer, so I’ll elaborate.

Everything we do, we do for publishers. We only perform services on a feed that a publisher has asked for. Publishers are seeing more and more of their content consumed via feeds. Fine. Now, it is incumbent on us to provide a solution that the broad market accepts. If you find yourself in an environment in which you are playing a cat and mouse game with ad blocking utilities, the market has already spoken against you. That’s not to say some people won’t block ads. Of course they will. There will be arguments, debate, etc. But it is absolutely incumbent on us to help find the most subscriber-friendly way possible for publishers to monetize their content. I’m sure Google understands that X% of people block AdSense ads, and they recognize that if that number stays below some percentage then they have a solution that Y% of the market feels is ok, and they call that market acceptance. I don’t know how else you can approach the debate.

I think it would be woefully artificial for anybody to declare the market’s intentions at this point, and I mean that in both directions. There is one very healthy thing about this debate that is a bit different from other such debates, and it is that publishers and subscribers are frequently much closer to each other in this market, since so many more subscribers are also publishers in this market! That will foster healthy discussion and hopefully accelerate the speed with which the market reaches equilibrium.

Q. It seems to me, that if not now, at some point soon, FeedBurner would be in a pretty good position to provide some kind of feed search. Is that on the cards, or something you’ve thought about at all?

Yes, we have thought about it, and it’s not on the cards (or “in” the cards as we say on this side of the pond….funny difference). You’re right, there are some really cool and unique things we could provide here, but we have to focus, and right now, we think feed search would lead us too far off our path. We have mapped out a plan to promote, deliver, and measure subscriptions for publishers, then provide monetization services for publishers that tie the product suite together. We need to stick to that; it is an absolutely huge opportunity.

Q. I’ve wanted to turn on your advanced tracking on my feeds for a little while, but something has been worrying me. You say that to do this you need to alter the urls of the feed items right? What happens when search engines pick up those urls from sites syndicating my headlines, follow the links and then count them as duplicate content?

Yep, there are a couple points to make here. We have worked closely with the leading search players that have approached us. I don’t think the duplicates issue has ever been a problem for them based on our discussions, but we do several things to ensure that the link rewrites don’t cause problems. First of all, we never ever rewrite guids. That is a real no-no. Those are guaranteed to be unique identifiers of the content. Secondly, we include an <origLink> element in any item we rewrite so that synch services like Newsgator and anybody else can do things like recognize the same item across feeds and understand whether it’s been consumed yet.

Q. In your view, what can we as bloggers do, and what can the “RSS industry” do to help speed up RSS adoption?

The simplest thing that bloggers can do to speed adoption is to ensure they are making it easy for people to subscribe. I suppose that’s stating the obvious, but if you look at 37 Signals blog, Signal vs. Noise, they make it very easy to subscribe to the feed and they’ve seen tremendous subscriber growth as a result.

FeedBurner offers a numbers of services specifically designed to make subscription easier (e.g. Browser Friendly, Email Subscriptions, Publicize buttons, etc.), but we need to go much further, of course. At the first web2.0 conference last year, Jeremy Zawodny, Jeff Jarvis, and I (in that order, I believe. I know how to jump on a bandwagon!) all said that the format and distribution mechanism need to get pushed down the stack so that people can just start subscribing to stuff without thinking about how to do it. I think we’ll see more improvement in that area that will drive ease of subscription in the coming year.

More to come…

Thanks very much to Dick Costolo, that was a great start to a series of coming interviews with some of the companies affecting the blogosphere in terms of Ads and Search.

Stick around, subscribe to our feed, and look forward to coming conversations with Google, Yahoo Chitika and other players affecting blogs in big ways.

One thought on “Interview: FeedBurner’s Dick Costolo on RSS Ads

  1. I’ve found that the ads that are sent through RSS help my local advertisers.

    I guess it all depends on the type of blog you’re publishing. Genre specific blogs that have no geographical placemark may have more difficulty differentiating their ads from ads people see on a daily basis.

    Just my $0.02

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