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Monitor Web Pages with RSS

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I reprised the RSS tricks session at BarCamp Charlotte on Saturday, where a popular trick was generating RSS feeds for sites that don't provide them. I use this to keep up with companies who don't have feeds for their press releases; it's also good for finding out about the public launch of stealth-mode companies.

Here are the companies I've found who create RSS feeds from web pages.

If you know of others, mention them in the comments, and I'll add them to the list.

Dapper can create feeds from sites without existing feeds, too, but it's more complicated than the change alerts that other services generate. Mozenda goes farther into data scraping with its commercial service, but it's overkill for basic site monitoring.

A site-provided feed is better than this scraping approach—especially when it comes to sites with rotating content (such as client quotes). But when there's no feed and you really want to know when new content is added, these tools are helpful for pulling data into an RSS-centric information environment.

BarCampRDU was Saturday, and as usual, it was great for meeting bright and interesting people who don't live so far away (and yes, I wore the tweetworthy shirt). I get a small thrill out of my international conversations, but it's hard to beat the wandering conversations that happen in person. Just one ranged from mobile augmented reality systems and science classes for home schoolers to n-dimensional space and current theories about the shape of the universe. In keeping with the general tone of the day, I went with a more technical session this year, sharing some of the tools I use for manipulating and repurposing RSS feeds.

I'm not a programmer, but I do like playing with data, so tools that let me play without having to learn real programming skills are a big help. When it comes to RSS, these tools fit perfectly:

  • FeedBurner
    Beyond the statistics that people usually like, FeedBurner is great for insulating your subscribers from behind-the-scenes changes. I've been using FeedBurner since the beginning of this blog, so when I moved it from Blogspot, I was able to make the change transparent to subscribers by having them on the FeedBurner feed instead of the blog's native feed.

  • Feed Informer
    Formerly FeedDigest, this is my workhorse tool for combining and reformatting feeds. When I moved the blog, I used FeedDigest to combine the old and new feeds until I had ten posts on the new site. Feed Informer is also my tool for adding blog feeds and Delicious tag feeds to web pages (for example, the entry page on net-savvy.com shows recent posts from two blogs, including excerpts stripped of their HTML). Delicious provides a similar capability with its link rolls feature, but Feed Informer gives more formatting flexibility with its ability to edit the HTML and pick up existing styles using CSS.

    For the session, I made a quick and dirty dashboard that pulled BarCampRDU content from Google Blog Search, Flickr and Twitter, all using Feed Informer. If you know enough HTML to make a web page, Feed Informer gives you everything else you need to incorporate feeds into web sites. It has lots of output options, but for the non-programmer, the Javascript option is easiest.

  • Dapper
    Similar to Feed Informer in its ability to manipulate and repurpose feed content, Dapper can also pull content directly from web sites (yes, they talk about getting permission when you do this). It has different output options, including pre-built widgets and straight HTML, so it may be the tool for somewhat different scenarios. I haven't had time to play with Dapper yet, but it looks promising.

  • AideRSS
    Filter feeds based on what other people think of its contents. Comments, delicious tags and links contribute to a score that rates each post against others from the same feed. AideRSS creates new feeds with different levels of selectivity; its dashboard is also a quick way to see which posts of your own blog are being tagged, etc.

  • FeedBlitz
    RSS to email with visibility into subscribers and subscriber management.
What I didn't cover:
  • Yahoo Pipes
    I talked with a few folks about presenting it, but they said it was really too complicated for my theme. The consensus was that Pipes benefits from a programmer mindset, and it's harder to use than the tools I showed.

  • Feeds from sites that don't offer feeds
    Feedwhip or Page2RSS monitor web sites and generate feeds of the changes. I'm sure there are a lot more, but how many do you need?

  • ZapTXT
    RSS to IM, text or email. Optional keyword filtering makes this primarily an alerting service.
RSS In, RSS Out
All of these services take RSS as an input. The beauty of the feed manipulation sites is that they also offer RSS outputs, so you can build interesting applications by running feeds through several of them on the way to their destination. It's important to think about the order, though. Merging feeds and filtering the result with AideRSS gives a different result than merging filtered feeds from AideRSS.

For a more detailed example of how you might combine these tools, read Marshall Kirkpatrick's description of how he built a conference dashboard from feeds. If you want to try Yahoo Pipes, try Marshall's introduction to Yahoo Pipes video, too.

From my perspective, the whole point of these services is that they're easy to use. If you know a little HTML and you're comfortable poking around at new software, you'll be able to use these in minutes. And if you build something cool based on what you picked up in this session—mention it in the comments so we can see it.

Translation on the fly?
Speaking of working with RSS, has anyone found a solid solution for translating feeds yet? I subscribe to some blogs in languages I don't know, which can be a bit comical.

Update: Mloovi uses Google Translate to translate feeds (via RWW, TechCrunch). The free version includes ads, or you can pay to remove them. I'm giving it a try.

Here's a dilemma for the bloggers: Let's say you post something that could use a little, um, refinement. After reading your post, you realize you should soften the language or take out a detail that's a bit too juicy. Your blog platform lets you edit published posts, so no problem, right? Well, no. Making changes actually highlights the text you want to hide, at least for some readers.

Highlight changes
The problem is, some RSS readers have an option to highlight changes in posts. Once the reader sees a post, it tracks changes to that post as long as it's in the feed. In my reader, for example, additions are shown in green text—so far, so good. But deleted text is shown in red—not so good for hiding. Deleted text is also strikethrough lined out, but it's readable. Every time a post is edited, the reader shows it to me again. It's frequently annoying but occasionally revealing.

So, the act of changing the post calls attention to the parts you needed to change, at least for subscribers who have that option turned on. And that red text draws attention to what may be the best parts of a post.

It can be very interesting to see what people go back and change.

I have too many feeds in my RSS reader. Every once in a while, I clear some of them out, but more often, I add new ones. It's crazy, but at this moment, I'm subscribed to over 700 feeds. RSS is my preferred power tool for keeping up with too many sources, and I've found a lot of ways to put it to work.

Here's what's in my feed reader now:

  • My own blogs
    How else would I know when I need to fix a problem?

  • Alerts
    From blog and other service providers. Mostly quiet, but it's good to know if one of them is having problems.

  • Blogs
    A mix of friends, professional acquaintances, and interests, both personal and professional. OK, I have too many of these—the downside of trying to know everything.

  • PR feeds
    For the companies I follow. Their feed if they have one, Page2RSS monitoring if they don't. 60 feeds, which means I've missed some (some don't have news pages to monitor).

  • Search and tag feeds
    Google Blogsearch feeds to track current news events (these don't stay around long). Del.icio.us and Technorati tag feeds to let other people do some of my discovery for me. The tag feeds have been especially helpful.

  • Vanity feeds
    Search feeds on my name (and the most common misspelling), company name, blog title keyword, and URLs. Feeds from del.icio.us, Digg, StumbleUpon and a few others to let me know when (and how) someone tags my sites. 50 feeds—I'll consolidate these when I get time.

  • Social network feeds
    Updates from LinkedIn, FaceBook and Dopplr. Twitter @replies (DMs go to email) and a Tweetscan search on the misspelled version of my name (correct spelling is picked up in Twhirl). Comments on my pictures on Flickr. A wiki watch feed, which I'm ready to delete.

  • Q&A feed
    New questions on TechDirt Insight Community. I had LinkedIn Q&A feeds, but the volume was overwhelming.

  • Event feeds
    Technorati, Flickr, del.icio.us tags. Event blogs. CrowdVine new member feeds. The good news is that traffic falls off once the event is over, and the feeds are an easy way to remember next year.

  • Job search feeds
    Keyword search on Indeed, feeds from job boards related to social media (including my own job board to let me know when someone posts there). You can learn a lot about who's doing what by their hiring needs.

  • Humor and other creativity enhancers
    Hey, it's not all work. You need xkcd.
All those feeds lead to an important distinction between subscribe and read. The feeds are grouped into folders by topic, and some of them get a very quick glance at the headlines before I mark everything read. I don't think I read every item in any folder, and I've become very quick at scanning headlines.

I have too many sources, and I need to clean house (again). But my feed reader is where I direct as many incoming sources as possible, and it saves me a lot of time visiting blogs, search engines and social networking sites. I couldn't do what I do without it.

Vinnie Mirchandani wrote about the new Analyst Transparency Workgroup, a gathering of big industry analyst firms to talk about how users can "access their favorite analysts across all paper, proprietary and RSS feed platforms and can seamlessly compare and collate their views on technology subjects and tags." Vinnie wants to know when they're going to be more open to the rest of the world; I'm wondering whether there's any progress toward delivering their content via RSS to their paying clients.

Vinnie's post really focuses on the lack of blogging at most analyst firms. They're in the business of selling what they write, so it's not hard to understand, but look at how visible Forrester has become in social media, largely because of their blogging analysts.

Putting up 1–2% of your research will not kill your business model. In fact it will increase traffic. And acknowledging your competition, a trade pub, a blogger will not kill your business model either. Should actually make your user experience richer.
Which all makes sense to me. But when he mentioned "RSS feed platforms," I immediately flashed back to the Intelligence Delivery System™ I sketched out in mid-2006.

RSS as a delivery mechanism to clients
IDS was to be an RSS-based system for aggregating and redistributing market intelligence, including analyst research subscriptions, inside the corporate firewall. Existing access methods required logging into and searching each analyst firms's web site individually, which meant that many individuals with paid access to the research don't bother finding it. IDS would provide more efficient access to help companies extract more value from that research.

It turned out that existing enterprise RSS systems could do most of what I described, if clients could get their reseach in an RSS feed. So when I saw "RSS feed platforms" in Vinnie's post, I had to ask if the big analyst firms are making their content available to their clients in RSS feeds yet.

Barbara French answered:

The mechanisms for merging "competing" subscriptions include Northern Light and some other corporate content management systems. These solutions are not cheap, and none that I have found cover many firms.
Northern Light looks like an interesting service, in an environment where analyst reports are available only through their web sites. But it strikes me as a workaround.

RSS coming soon?
The availability of RSS feeds would free client companies to incorporate the research into their own systems, potentially making the research more available—and thus more valuable—to their users. Is this part of what the new Analyst Transparency Workgroup means when they talk about access via RSS feed platforms?

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AideRSS for publishers

AideRSS is a new RSS-filtering service designed to help people manage the volume of posts in their subscriptions. It uses a proprietary PostRank metric to group posts from a given feed into Good/Great/Best groups and creates a filtered RSS feed for each. For readers, this has the potential to be a big time-saver. For publishers, it further complicates the RSS metrics situation while creating a handy overview of online reactions to posts.

Complicating RSS metrics
RSS audience metrics are tricky already. The conventional wisdom recommends the use of Feedburner, largely for its feed analytics. Feedburner stats are a big help, but they miss indirect subscribers to the feed. For example, content that is republished on another site (such as selections from this blog that appear on Social Media Today) may be available in feeds from that site; subscribers to those feeds don't show up in the stats.

AideRSS potentially creates a new pool of readers who don't show up in Feedburner stats. Even if AideRSS were to report subscriber numbers to Feedburner, like Bloglines or Google Reader, the numbers wouldn't add up—readers of a filtered feed aren't the same as readers of the full feed. So the new service complicates RSS stats in proportion to its popularity.

Tools for publishers
It's not all headache, though. AideRSS has two features of immediate interest to publishers: a PostRank widget to help visitors find your "best" posts, and a reporting interface with real potential.

The widget looks interesting, and since I'm in the middle of customizing my blog design (thanks for not pointing out the obvious deficiency), I might even use it.

The really interesting thing for publishers is the overview page AideRSS creates for each site. Like everything in the first release, it's meant for readers, with its links to the filtered posts, but look at the information it collects about each post in the feed (with links to the appropriate sources):

  • Number of comments
  • Links via Bloglines, Technorati and IceRocket
  • del.icio.us bookmarks
That last one is big; tracking del.icio.us is a pain (almost as much as typing del.icio.us). If AideRSS were to go one more step and add feeds for the analytics, it would be a must-have tool for publishers—at least until del.icio.us provides a domain search feature. Published stats from AideRSS would partially address the earlier analytics problem, too. If the service becomes popular, it opens the door to a new kind of audience segmentation (by selected filter).

Publisher services—someday
While the initial service—and all the publicity— focus on the free subscriber service, AideRSS realizes the potential value to publishers in their system. Chief Architect Ilya Grigorik talked with Josh Catone about potential publisher services:

Ilya told me that as the index grows, there exists the potential for meaningful analysis of post and reader trends, patterns, habits, meme tracking, etc. These sort of services are the type of things that could potentially be offered on a for-pay basis to publishers, but Ilya stressed that that is not a focus for AideRSS at the moment.
While we're waiting for the real deal, I'll be using AideRSS to track del.icio.us and see what an objective observer thinks of my posts. I may even use it to get a handle on the flood of posts in my reader.

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Translating RSS feeds

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I've been thinking about languages again. I talk to a lot of companies, many of them outside the US. Fortunately for me, English is very popular as a second language, which makes the conversations possible. It doesn't always help me with their web sites and blogs, however, and so I find myself making regular use of automated translation services. The piece I'm missing is a reliable way to translate RSS feeds.

Rafe Needleman posted a quick, easy, and—when I tried it—ineffective method of translating feeds using Yahoo Pipes. The titles get translated, but the body stays in the original language. Not much help. I didn't get any farther with Google Translate, although I'm still experimenting with other combinations of translation and RSS services. If you've found a combination that works, I'd like to hear about it.

What we need is a feed translation service, which takes in a feed, translates it, and creates a new, translated feed. With the acquisition of Feedburner, Google has the pieces. Any chance they'll do it?

If the whole idea of machine translation goes against everything you know about language, I know. I'd rather be able to read all those languages, too, but there will always be languages I can't read, and I can't justify proper translations. I can do a minimally acceptable job reading the French blogs, and I can get the general idea with other Romance languages. There will always be more languages that I can't read, and for those, machine translations are a great service, even with their flaws.

Science project challenge
Speaking of languages, I haven't heard from anyone who's tried my translingual influencer analysis science project. If your company has multilingual capabilities and does influence analysis, this could be a powerful demonstration. Can you identify relevant, influential sources who pick up a topic in one language and write about it in another?

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Putting the RSS in PR

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I subscribe to a lot of RSS feeds. Too many, really, so there's a constant tension between the desire to read everything and the reality of finite time. Still, feeds offer a big efficiency gain over other methods of tracking events. So last week I spent some time looking for PR feeds on company web sites (not blogs), with mixed results. A lot of companies still need to work on putting the RSS in their PR.

To keep things in perspective, note that all of the companies I checked are in social media businesses. We're not talking about companies who haven't heard of RSS. This is what I found:

  • Working feed
    You're in the game. Thank you.

  • No feed at all
    Feeds make it so much easier to follow your news. You want people to see your releases, don't you? Oh, well, at least there's Page2RSS.

  • Feed with no content
    The RSS icon is a head fake. Nobody's home.

  • Live feed that doesn't match web page
    Click, subscribe, and—wait, something's wrong here. If your feed is obsolete, subscribers won't find out unless they go back to your site, which defeats the purpose of subscribing to the feed. New subscribers may not notice the disconnect as they subscribe.
I also thought about blogs that keep giving me all of their content again. When a feed keeps showing up as "unread," I have to decide whether I really want to keep seeing the old items. A variation is the feed that keeps showing me the same one or two items, which has the effect of making the site seem fixated on that one topic.

Easy steps for RSS hygiene

  1. If you have a web page with company news or press releases, give it an RSS feed. If you want to get fancy, set up separate feeds for press releases, press coverage and white papers. Yes, this requires some technical work behind the scenes—it's worth it.

  2. Use FeedBurner for its insights into feed subscribers. Remember to configure the autodiscovery code to point to the FeedBurner version of your feed.

  3. Subscribe to your own feed. Check to confirm that the content of the feed matches the page. Notice if items in your feed keep showing up as unread, so you can fix things.

  4. If your feed moves, try to make the old address continue to work (easy with FeedBurner). Otherwise, post an address change message for subscribers to the old feed. The address change should always be the newest item on an obsolete feed.
Nothing to it. RSS: the easy way to get more people to read your PR. And that's the point, isn't it?

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I like the steep part of the adoption curve, when the early adopters are using a new technology and the mainstream is just starting to discover it. It was fun to be in broadband Internet when even the providers didn't fully get it, and it's fun to be working with social media now. The mainstream is just starting to tune in to these new media and tools, and I plan to help them figure it out.

So, where are we today?

Attensa CEO Craig Barnes is bursting with the anticipation of announcing their first major customers, but at this point, enterprise RSS is so new that the three competitors are in the position of co-promoters. When was the last time that you linked to your major competitors on your blog, anyway?

Cymfony conducted a quick poll before a webinar on the ROI of blogging. The audience was serious about blogging—30% had corporate blogs, and most of the rest were in the planning process. Blog monitoring hasn't fully reached this crowd, though:

Even with a blog savvy crowd, they are amazingly unsophisticated in their blog monitoring practices. The largest group, 23%, relies on the most basic method of monitoring—manual searches on traditional search engines like Google. 16% search manually on a blog search engine like Technorati, 20% keep a list of specific blogs to follow and only 20% track with an RSS aggregator. A smaller group are using automated services like Cymfony.

Remember, the survey was given to a blogging webinar audience, so it's a safe guess that a broader corporate audience is even less aware of blog monitoring. Good news for those of us looking to help clients up the learning curve.

Bonus points to Cymfony for offering Forrester's 2006 Brand Monitoring Wave on their web site. I know what I'll be reading tonight. Thanks, guys.

Update: Nielsen BuzzMetrics also posted the Forrester report, available without registration (pdf). However, Cymfony's download also includes the vendor summary on Cymfony.

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About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Studying complexity and futures.
  • Principal, Social Target

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