Try saying that three times fast! Jupiter Research analyst Eric Peterson recently had another chat with Bloglines CEO Mark Fletcher. The resulting post from Eric pretty much confirms my theory that Bloglines was scared off its contextual advertising strategy by vocal publishers (big and small). Here's what Eric wrote:

"[...] It turns out that Mark and the folks at Ask Jeeves may ditch the advertising idea entirely (no "AdWords on steroids" after all). Mark said that Jeeves has determined that "in some scenarios Bloglines would not have to generate revenue" and that there may be more value in using Bloglines to introduce subscribers to other Jeeves offerings.

He's not saying context-based advertising in Bloglines is dead but given the heat he has taken his new position makes sense. Forget the fact that they needed to find an advertising partner that would be willing and able to serve ads against content and context, having to continuously respond to grumpy bunnies who want their feeds culled from Bloglines would surely have become a full-time job for Mark or his lawyers."

Eric goes on to ask how Bloglines' competitors will respond if some bloggers "aren't okay having ads shown adjacent to their "content" (despite the fact that they should be publishing a summary feed.)"

The Issues

Firstly, I think the 'why not just publish excerpted feeds' argument is a red herring. Publishers should retain the right to publish full feeds and have a copyright on that if they so desire. Sure having an excerpted feed is the practical thing to do if you want to protect your content from contextual advertising, but there are a lot of benefits to having a full feed and I don't see why publishers should forgo that. For example, as a reader a lot of times I like to scan a post in my RSS Aggregator before clicking through to it. So as a publisher, I want to give readers that option. And that's just one benefit of a full feed, there are many others...

The larger issue is: in what situations is contextual advertising OK? Due to what happened with Bloglines, we now know that putting contextual advertising in RSS Aggregators around full-feed content is a no-no. What about the other scenarios though? Here are some:

1) Is it OK to put adverts around content summaries? For example, My Yahoo only does headlines or short excerpts for RSS feeds. If they put adverts around feed excerpts, will publishers allow that? Bear in mind that Yahoo could potentially earn thousands of dollars off your feed from such a scenario, given their huge user base and leverage with advertisers.

Gabe pointed in my comments to a conversation SiliconBeat had with Rich Skrenta of Topix:

"Topix does run ads next to its news headlines, but hasn't faced problems. Skrenta says the legal threat from publishers is overblown, if it exists at all. He says among all the publishers he's talked with, none has raised legal questions about Topix' business model. Most are just happy to have Topix driving traffic to their sites."

So the current opinion seems to be that it would be OK. However the issue would be more fully tested if a big player like Yahoo (or Bloglines) announced such a strategy. Until that happens, the jury is still out IMO.

2) Charles Coxhead asked in my comments: "what if the advertising is just dumb ads (not contextual), so doesn't rely on the aggregated content itself to drive context. Does this make a difference?"

RM says: I suspect it wouldn't matter if the adverts were contextual or not. The issue is that someone else is making money off your content.

3) What about people who copy entire posts from other bloggers and paste them into their own blogs? What if they ran adverts around that content?

I have a couple of readers who every now and then copy and paste a whole post from R/WW and publish it on their own weblog. They don't seem to be making money off it with adverts or sponsorships etc, so generally I'm OK with it as long as they only do it occasionally and always give me linked attribution. It's a Remix Culture after all. I would be upset however if people were clearly making money off my writing, without my permission.

I actually have a full copyright on my blog, although I could just as well have the Creative Commons attribution and non-commercial licence. Don't get me wrong, I love the CC licences and think they are the future of copyright. Indeed I released my draft novel and other creative writing on a CC licence. But for my blog I'm sticking with the traditional copyright (for now) because there are still some grey areas around Creative Commons. The RSS Aggregator issues outlined above are perhaps examples of those grey areas.

Summary

Those are some of the issues facing the current crop of RSS Aggregators - and content producers too. While Bloglines has all but opted out of this controversy now, it's an issue that will continue to simmer through 2005 and flare up occasionally.

Update: Feedburner to the rescue? Josh Hallett in response to my post asks: "Somebody needs to create a product to provide RSS feed owners a percentage of the advertising revenue from sites that syndicate their content. Feedburner?" And true to form, a Feedburner rep is quick to respond. Dick Costolo replies in Josh's comments: "We are on top of this and are investigating tools and services to address this very issue. There are a growing number of these sites, publishers are generally unaware of the issue (at least as regards the number of these sites that exist), and there is little or no way for the personal publisher to track their content as its repurposed with surrounding ads. A perfect thing for us to deal with." Go Feedburner!!