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Senior Money Memos

NEWS FEEDS BOOST WEBSITE TRAFFIC

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

News feeds were originally developed so that traditional news media could rapidly announce to the world that they had new items of news. The same mechanism has been available to website owners for some years but the acceptance has been slow. Only a small fraction of Internet visitors have been scanning such news feeds. Google Reader has now had a major upgrade and is a user-friendly way of staying on top of breaking news. Internet Explorer Version 7 will launch officially this month with the ability to display news feeds. Webmasters should make sure they appear on these new radar screens to benefit from these new sources of visitor traffic.

INTRODUCTION

Unless visitors come to your website, your website cannot achieve the objectives you have set. A B2B (Business-to-Business) website without sales prospects has no opportunity to convert them into purchasers. A charity non-profit website without visitors has no opportunity to explain what it is doing and seek donations to support its activities. The more traffic, the more likely the goals can be achieved.

Many people will automatically think of trying to be more visible in the search engines listings and that is important. That is often called Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or Search Engine Marketing (SEM). However there is another parallel activity that in some cases can be almost as important in generating traffic. This is the publishing of News Feeds and this article describes what is involved.

NEWS BRINGS VISITORS

Visitors are more likely to visit websites that are interesting and an important element in this is how the company or agency behind the website is making news. Certainly if there is never any news, there is no reason to revisit the website. In addition, visitors like to be visiting websites that are associated with successful companies and such companies will inevitably be making news.

If the company is making news, how can customers or prospects be aware that something new has happened? If the prospect has subscribed to an e-mail newsletter, then they can receive an e-mail alert that something exciting has happened. However such e-mail messages may get lost in the flood of e-mail messages that many people receive. Even worse, it may be trashed by a filter attempting to screen out the abundant spam messages that we all are subjected to. There is a better way of signalling that the company has done something newsworthy. Even a Microsoft spokesman felt they were an essential part of marketing. It's a method that has been used by the traditional news media for many years. It's called News Feeds.

NEWS FEEDS ARE NEWS ALERTS

The BBC has an excellent introduction to news feeds as they apply to the traditional media such as the BBC. As they say, in essence, the feeds themselves are just web pages, designed to be read by computers rather than people. That isn't quite true, as we will see later, as people can now increasingly read news feeds. However the main description is correct. News feeds are news alerts to signal that the newsmaker has just produced a new piece of news.

news feed icon

You may be more aware of news feeds than you realize. Whenever you see the icon that is to the left, then there is a news feed close at hand. It is usually used in a smaller format, like this small news feed icon. That is a sign that you can retrieve one or more news feeds from that web page.

Some will be aware that blogs can also produce news feeds. These function in exactly the same way as the news feeds produced by the standard news sources. Feedburner, which deals much more with news feeds from blogs, has another good description of news feeds particularly as they relate to blogs in its Feed 101 article.

As both descriptions point out, the way to understand what these news feeds are saying is to use a News Feed Aggregator. These programs will continually check any news feeds to which you have subscribed and usually within an hour will signal which feeds have new news items. Such news feed aggregators have been around for some years but an announcement that was made on September 28 will undoubtedly encourage much wider use among the Internet population.

THE GOOGLE READER

Google Reader

Almost a year ago, Google produced its own news feed aggregator in beta format as it so often does. Unfortunately it was not without problems and probably did little to influence wider acceptance of news feeds. For example, it did not function very well in Mozilla Firefox, which at that time was seeing a strong growth in those who used it. Now a year later, Google Reader appears in a completely revised format. It looks and feels somewhat like Google Gmail for those who are familiar with the Google e-mail system. Indeed Google describes Google Reader as Your inbox for the web.

Those of us who have been with news feeds for some time may well find that one of the established news feed aggregators such as Bloglines is more to our taste. However the Google clout will undoubtedly increase the numbers using news feeds. The spread of news feed users is likely to grow exponentially since it provides a much more encompassing radar screen on what is going on, with only a fraction of the effort needed for other approaches.

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YOUR BROWSER CAN (SHORTLY?) DISPLAY NEWSFEEDS

The other powerful influence on the growing acceptance of news feeds is that web browsers will automatically be able to read them without the need for a news feed aggregator. Mozilla Firefox can already display news feeds. This means that if someone sees a news item that seems of interest, they can click on the hyperlink in the news feed and see the full news item.

Internet Explorer Version 7.0

The most popular browser, Internet Explorer, currently available as Version 6, does not display news feeds in a human-friendly form. Instead it displays the code the computer sees. This will change in Version 7 of Internet Explorer. This is now available as Pre-release version 1 and it has a most pleasing way of displaying news feeds. Even more intriguing, there is a gentle swish sound whenever you visit a web page that has an associated news feed (small news feed icon). Since the official version will be released this month according to the IE Blog, many more people will be hearing the swish of news feeds.

NEWS FEED PINGING

News feeds are very much win/win for both visitors and for webmasters. Visitors can scan many more news sources and receive alerts on new items almost as soon as they're 'on air'. Webmasters too can ensure that their news items are known about fast.

Regular web pages are only known to the search engines when the search engine spiders or robots happen to visit the website. Such a robot visit can be infrequent and is usually very partial. Sometimes the robot will only check the robots.txt file to make sure the website is still live. It may then scrutinise a small fraction of the web pages and leave the rest for some other time. The visit schedule is set by the search engines.

With news feeds, the Webmaster is in control. This is achieved by 'pinging' or alerting the various news feed aggregators and news feed databases when new items are added to the news feed. Although each of these databases can be pinged independently, usually one of the pinging services is used. Two very popular ones are Pingoat and Ping-O-Matic. By such means the Webmaster can ensure almost instant visibility of a news item.

VISIBILITY IN BLOG SEARCHES

News items are of course really just web pages like any other web page. So in a regular keyword search, they many not appear, given that on any topic there may be a multitude of web pages over the years on that topic. A regular keyword search gives no extra weight because web pages are new. Indeed if anything, they may well receive a lower weight.

For many years, the major search engines have had specialized searches on News. This was defined as news appearing in any of the more important traditional news sources. The search engine might scan the news feeds put out by a few thousand traditional media, such as the BBC, CNN, Reuters, the New York Times and so on.

What is new now is that Google has brought out a search process that scans all other news feeds. Since most of these come from Blogs, it is called Google Blogsearch. Yahoo! did have a blog search until the start of September but has inexplicably withdrawn it. MSN (Live) now has a blog search in beta format. Ask (Jeeves) has recently added a blog search as well.

In addition to the major search engines' blog searches, there are specialized search databases that catalogue blogs. A major one is Technorati, but Icerocket and Sphere are among a growing number of others. By doing such blog searches, current news items can be found that have not got into the traditional news searches.

ADDING A NEWSFEED TO YOUR WEBSITE

The arguments for adding a news feed to your website to signal news are thus very powerful:

  • News feeds provide instant Internet visibility for your news.
  • A growing number of individuals check news feeds to stay on top of breaking news.
  • A growing number of individuals search news feeds to find relevant web pages.
  • The Google Reader relaunch will significantly increase the number of news feed checkers.
  • When Internet Explorer Version 7 goes public later this month, the news feed sound (the "swish") will sensitize even more to the availability of news feeds.

A news feed does not mean you are adding a blog to your website. A news feed is merely a list of web pages that have been recently updated. It may give the coordinates and a short summary for say the most recent 10 web pages. As newer items are added, the older items are removed from the list. The most common formats are as an RSS file or an Atom file. If such a news feed is registered with the principal news feed aggregators and these are pinged when new items are added, then the corresponding full news items will have heightened visibility on the Internet.

The news feed is a file written in XML code that is located normally in the root directory of the website domain. For example a news feed for the SMM newsletters has been published since 2002. Its name is smm.rss (small news feed icon) and it gives a good illustration of how to construct a news feed file. It can be prepared in any text editor such as Notepad.

The actual code includes the following elements (typical example):

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>

<rss version="2.0" 
	xmlns:content="http://purl.org/rss/1.0/modules/content/"
	xmlns:wfw="http://wellformedweb.org/CommentAPI/"
	xmlns:dc="http://purl.org/dc/elements/1.1/"
	>

<channel>

<title>  title of news feed  </title>
<link>  ..  URI for news feed  ..  </link>
<description> .. description of news feed ..  </description>

<image>
  .. can include image for news feed
</image>

<item>
<title> .. title for item ..   </title>
<guid> .. URI for item .. </guid>
<description>
  .. description for item ..
</description>
</item>

several similar items can be added

</channel>
</rss>

If you want more information, then 'Understanding RSS News Feeds' will give you more information.

Some websites do have news feeds but somewhat perversely keep these alerts hidden on some media web page buried deep within the website. If the news feed may be of wider interest, then it is appropriate to signal its existence on other web pages as well, including the website Home page. This is done by adding the following code within the HEAD section of any web page (this is the actual code used on the SMM web pages).

<link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" title="SMM Newsletters"
href="http://smmbc.ca/smm.rss">

NOTE: A line break has been inserted in the above code for better formatting here.

When this is done for any web page, then while visiting such a web page using the web browser Mozilla Firefox, a small news feed icon (small news feed icon) appears in the right hand end of the browser address field. Clicking on this icon allows a live bookmark to be set for that news feed. This facilitates visits to the news feeds on other occasions.

When Internet Explorer Version 7.0 is released, there is similar visibility of the news feed. In addition to the small 'swish' sound as the web page is opened, there is a small icon (small news feed icon) that can be clicked to display the news feeds that are available.

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GRAFTING A BLOG INTO YOUR WEBSITE

If you have a news feed on your website and you are adding new web pages on newsworthy activities from time to time, doesn't that generate enough Internet visibility for your company or agency? Well it's certainly a very good start.

However without creating any more content than this, it is possible to use the same content with much greater leverage to achieve heightened Internet visibility. The mechanism to do this is provided by blogging software. This does not mean that the word 'blog' needs to be used anywhere on the website.

As was described in the previous newsletter ("Your Website Needs A Blog"), blogs by their very nature have much more visibility with the search engines. Each post becomes part of a number of much larger web pages, which often rank well for some of the more complex keyword searches that individuals may do.

The advantage of using blogging software such as WordPress is that news feeds are produced automatically and the news feed aggregator databases can be pinged automatically. So using a blog approach to news feeds significantly reduces the effort required.

A good example of the way a blog can be integrated/grafted into a website can be seen at the website of Comtech Phones. Comtech Phones sells new and used business telephone systems. This website is in continuing evolution and improvement. Originally it did not include a blogging component. With a slight rearrangement of the horizontal navigation bar, a new button for 'News Alerts' was added. That button leads to a series of pages where news items are added, including notices of Specials on business telephone systems. WordPress blogging software is used to produce these web pages.

SUMMARY CONCLUSION

Marketing is sometimes defined as a dialogue process between a company and its customers and prospects. A website can be an effective vehicle in promoting this dialogue. Part of its content should be newsworthy to confirm the energy and the success of the company. If this approach is accepted, then news feeds can and should be a powerful part of this dialogue process. With the growing acceptance of news feeds, it is only a matter of time before most websites will include them. As usual it is better to be ahead of the competition on this, rather than chasing them.

If you require help with this, then SMM will be happy to help you figure out your best approach. Our help can be configured to meet exactly the needs you have. Our strengths, experience and creativity can complement those of your company. So write us a Message today on what you're looking for without obligation.

Barry Welford

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Added to site 9 October 2006
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