Google Adsense in RSS: why not?

Last week Robert McLaws started placing Google Adsense Ads in the LonghornBlogs RSS Feed. The reaction from the community seemed to be mostly negative; Dave Winer for instance, wrote:

If we wanted to, as an industry, reject the idea, we could, by asking the people who create the software to add a feature that strips out all ads. Make it default to on. Then, that would force the advertisers, if they want to speak to us, to do so respectfully, by our choice. Create feeds of commercial information that we might be interested in, and if we are, we'll subscribe. If not, we won't.
I'm not sure what Dave is smoking, but who in their right mind would subscribe to a feed with nothing but ads? Maybe some deals feeds might be interesting, but the majority of ads (and therefore ad-feeds) don't work that way.

Another reaction was tricks to hide the ads. I linked to Sam Ruby's blog here instead of to the actual code as the responses to his post are again interesting; Phil Ringnalda states he won't bother hiding the ads, but rather just unsubscribe, while Aaron Junod calls it a "sad day for blogs".

Ads are not all bad though. Without ads, would we have sites like Wired, CNN, MSNBC or even slashdot?. All these sites have RSS feeds, but only one (slashdot) contains the full post text of the entry. This by the way also happens to be the only feed of these four that contains ads.

For me, I'd much rather subscribe to an ad-supported full content feed, than an excerpt feed without ads, where, in order to see the full contents, you'd have to visit the (ad-supported) website itself. For those that truly despise ads, hopefully CNN et al. will decide to publish two feeds, one like they have now, and the other being an ad-supported full-content feed.

The truth of the matter is that publishing content on the web isn't free. People need to pay hosting costs, news organizations need to pay journalists, etc. If a few ads can help offset those costs, and also give something back to bloggers who invest many hours of their spare time to this, then what's the big deal? We can't all be Kottke (who, despite his success so far, even admits himself that he doesn't expect this to last).

Personally, once RSS feeds start showing flashy distracting animated ads, I probably will unsubscribe from the feed in question. But an on-topic unobtrusive ad at the bottom of an entry, why not?

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While I don't disagree with the concept, the implementation is horrible.
The ads in a given post are evidently refreshed rather than staying static once they've been associated with a post, with the effect that every time there is a new post on SharpReader reports not only that post but the 14 previous ones as new.
Being constantly told that things that I've already read are new or updated posts is next to spam as far as I'm concerned.
Between that and the whining tone that's predominated lately I'm rapidly losing interest in that site.

Posted by Kevin Daly at May 1, 2005 8:54 PM

Ouch! I agree that indeed is a horrible implementation.

I don't actually subscribe to longhornblogs, but looking at the feed-source, I noticed an <img src="">. I figured this meant that the feed-contents would remain the same, but when loading this page from an aggregator, different ad-images could be returned at different times. I assumed the main reasons they used an image instead of the actual ad-contents would be that

1. Feed publishers don't need to worry about contacting google to get the ad-text, and
2. They could change the ad without forcing the feed-item to change with it.

Obviously, I was wrong.

Their ad-program is still in a restricted beta right now - I would hope they fix this by the time they go live. If not, aggregator authors will be forced to at least add code to handle their ads in order to no longer show the item as changed. But if we're adding code anyway that identifies the ads, then blocking them altogether would be a small extra step...

Posted by Luke Hutteman at May 1, 2005 11:22 PM

Well, if Cabelas had a granular enough feed (say, the second-level Fly-Tying category, since an overall Fly Fishing feed would tempt them to include nothing but $500 reels) of new products and sale items, I'd be delighted to subscribe; if they were willing to admit that the hundreds of dollars I've spent with them mean they know just what sizes I wear, and what sort of things I'm likely to need (rain gear yes, turkey hunting accessories no), I'd probably subscribe to a broader "personal" feed, too.

The majority of advertising isn't something you would seek out because mass media has mass audiences that have mass desires and can be persuaded to buy mass things they don't really want or need. I pay no attention to mass media, because I don't care about the crud they push to their audience (is American Golden Calf still on the air?), and I pay no attention to mass advertising for the same reason. In theory, that should mean that I'd approve of AdSense, but in fact they try too hard, and fail far too much. The screenshot Jason Calcanis posted being all proud of having relevant ads says it all: a Windows XML IDE ad in a post about users getting ready for a Mac OS upgrade. The Laszlo Systems "Longhorn can wait" ads on most of the Longhornblogs posts are sort of funny, but utterly ineffective since I can't shift-click and open them in Firefox to get the URL and include it here.

However, I'd be very surprised if they screwed it up so badly that they change the post HTML every time the feed is regenerated: seems much more likely that the Longhornblogs folks are still messing around with colors and id numbers, so they changed the URLs from one fetch to the next.

Posted by Phil Ringnalda at May 2, 2005 1:56 AM

Dave accepted $10,000 from Adam Curry for placement in the default list of subscribed feeds in Radio Userland, and now he wants to talk about stripping ads by default? Quick, somebody write a browser toolbar that unsubscribes from his feed! And Adam's too, and whatever other default subscriptions he got paid for and never disclosed.

Posted by fly-fisher wannabe at May 2, 2005 10:27 AM

Heh - I'd forgotten all about that Dave/Adam deal... probably blocked it from memory out of jealousy since Adam never contacted me to pay for default placement :-)

Thinking back on this, I wonder if he ever did invest another $10,000 into default placements in other aggregators (as long as they don't support ATOM), as he said he'd do.

Posted by Luke Hutteman at May 2, 2005 11:05 AM

I think RSS text ads are fine... but as you say, if the ad changes every time and makes the post appear as new, then it becomes an unsubscribe because it ruins the whole point of reading by RSS in the first place. Of course (and this is probably anethema to this blog, but...) Bloglines allows you to ignore updated posts in feeds on an individual basis. That would be a workaround, but for those people who like reading updated posts, it wouldn't work. (I hate reading updated posts, so it's fine with me)

The second I see stretchy pigs or dogs with money floating around them in an RSS feed, I'm unsubscribing.

Posted by Nels at May 2, 2005 12:28 PM

Ads in RSS will be a new channel for advertisers. It will be worse.

Posted by Petr at May 2, 2005 5:34 PM

Ads in feeds were / are inevitable. I've experimented with them. If people don't like the presentation, or if they think it's not in good taste, they'll unsubscribe. If I don't like the ads on a web site or in a TV show, I don't go there anymore.

I really don't think it could get any more market - driven than that. The equation is as objective as gravity.

Posted by Peter Bromberg at May 2, 2005 9:19 PM

Heh. The equation is as subjective as love.

Luke, you mentioned that CNN and MSNBC need to make money: that's very true. I've got a post on the draft spike right now, about SGML rules for what ends a character entity reference. If I was a journalist, I'd need to buy a copy of the SGML spec (only available as a $186 PDF or on paper for the same price), and I'd need to spend a day or two calling around the country or the world, getting quotes and verification. Since I'm not a journalist, I won't, and it hasn't cost me a thing, other than some time I would have spent watching TV in a previous life. I don't have to make money for it, and I don't deserve to make money for it: I want to tell some friends about something I noticed and spent a little while Googling. And I certainly don't deserve to make money for linking to something shiny: I might as well expect my flesh friends to pay me before I tell them about a movie I saw.

I actually do subscribe to one feed with ads: Mike Gunderloy's. He is a professional, it's what he does for a living, and the stuff he links to and reviews is stuff I usually don't hear about from anyone else in my circle, and his ads are relevant, because he types them in himself rather than pretending that bad keyword matching amounts to relevance. But that's not why I subscribed, and still subscribe: it's because long, long ago, when nobody had ever heard of me and he was a weblog tech god, he linked to something I did.

A few monkey-punching ads might be simple as gravity, but for most it's going to come down to things like "my daddy always read the Times, and said anyone who didn't was an ignorant fool, so here's my excuse to show him by unsubscribing and ignoring them and reading the Post instead," or "it kills me reading about how horrible John's job is, maybe these ads will bring in enough that he can quit, especially once I click every single one I see."

Posted by Phil Ringnalda at May 2, 2005 10:46 PM

Your comment about "but who in their right mind would subscribe to a feed with nothing but ads?". I don't want to sound disagreeable but how do television operations like QVC and Home Shopping stay in business? They are 24 hours a day of ads with, generally, women as the hosts.

Posted by Daniel Gard at May 5, 2005 8:36 AM
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