Personalized Feeds

As an investor in a number of companies that do stuff with RSS (NewsGator, FeedBurner, Technorati, and Judy’s Book) and fan and active user of others (e.g., FeedBlitz, SixApart) I’ve been seeing a lot of “this sucks, that’s great, that sucks, this is great” blog posts lately, but rarely do I see anyone decompose what’s actually bad or great and explaining why. Occasionally there’s some stuff from an end-user perspective (especially whenever Google rolls something out), but I’ve been surprised by the general lack of technical depth and public debate. Ok – maybe I’m reading the wrong feeds – but I’m trying.

While I’m a nerd, I’m on the investor side of the equation instead of the engineer side of the equation. As a result, I’m always looking for the analog of the thing I’m experiencing – “what – in the past – was like this thing that is now happening that can provide insight into what the future is going to be like?” I spend a lot of time thinking about this with regard to RSS (and blogs, user-generated content, online advertising, content organization, search, tools, platforms, trendy buzzwords to try to describe everything, and a preponderance of VC investors diving into an area just to get bets on the table.) I don’t pretend I necessarily have a clue technically (ok – I pretend, but I don’t have a clue) – but I know enough to be able to play around with things, look at what I think is going on under the hood, and make (at the minimum) provocative suggestions (often wrong, but at least provocative) about what I think is happening.

Personalized RSS feeds is one of the issues that hit me in the face recently. In the past few weeks, I’ve subscribed to a few RSS feeds that were personalized just for me. Specifically, when I subscribed, the URL that ended up in FeedDemon / NGOS (the aggregator that I use) had a unique identifier at the end. If I subscribed a second time (pretending I was a different person), I got a different unique identifier and ended up with two feeds. This is distinct from a feed that I’ve customized such as a delicious tag feed that is still a generic feed that presumably multiple people will subscribe to if they use the same parameters that I do.

Now – I believe that RSS feeds that are personalized for a particular subscriber’s preferences will become an important tool in the content syndication world, just as static html gave way to CGI, cookies appeared, or broadcast opt-in email (Dear Sir:) evolved into narrowcast (Dear Brad:). However, I think the early attempts at brute force personalization by assigning unique feed URLs as a means of tracking subscribers can cause several problems.

  1. Web-based aggregator aren’t going to put up with having 10,000 feeds in their database that are essentially the same feed. This places an undue burden of polling and synching on the aggregator, it’s inefficient, and of course, many of the aggregator will ultimately collapse these into a “single” feed. It’s fundamentally inefficient for the publisher for exactly the same reasons. A year ago, there was a lot of noise about “overpolling of RSS” (e.g. aggregator that polled every minute). Most aggregrators have addressed this issue, but the personalized feed phenomenon could start this issue back up.
  2. This approach breaks OPML reading lists. If I’ve got a unique URL feed in my OPML, then when somebody imports my curated collection of feeds, they end up subscribing to a personalized feed, and now you’ve got multiple people subscribed to a personal feed. The stats are no longer accurate for the publisher and my OPML friend is now getting “Dear Brad:” stuff.
  3. Once anybody subscribes to the feed in a web-based aggregator like NewsGator Online or My Yahoo, when people search for that topic, they’ll find one or more personal feeds, subscribe to it, and now you have N people subscribed to a personal feed, the publisher thinks all the subscribers are coming from that one person, you’ve lost an accurate count of the number of subscribers. In addition, the new subscribers get the original personalized feed, which may not be configured the way they want (or thought it was). Finally, in some cases, the search will turn up numerous feeds that cover the same topic, making it hard to determine which one should be subscribed to.
  4. If you are the publisher and you eventually want to change the way you distribute feeds, it’s no longer a matter of redirecting one URL, you now have to go herd the countless subscribers to countless URLs out there in the wild.

Fundamentally, the approach that I’m starting to see appear results in a false sense of a true subscriber count via personalization (presumably one of the goals of personalization is to get an accurate subscriber count), doesn’t scale for the aggregators, the subscriber count quickly diverges from reality as people search for or share feeds, and it’s hard to redirect your subscribers correctly if you decide to do something different later.

There’s got to be a better approach.