RSS and SEO: Implications for Search Marketers

March 2nd, 2005

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Hello from Search Engine Strategies in NYC. Yesterday I spoke at the Webfeeds, Blogs, and Search session. My talk was focused on on implementing RSS feeds as part of your search engine marketing strategy. I’ve made my Powerpoint deck available online at www.netconcepts.com/learn/rss.ppt.

A lot of people mistakenly lump blogs and RSS together, but RSS has infinitely more applications beyond just blogs! For example: news alerts, latest specials, clearance items, upcoming events, new stock arrivals, new articles, new tools & resources, search results, a book’s revision history, top 10 best sellers (like Amazon.com does in many of its product categories), project management activities, forum/listserve posts, recently added downloads, etc.

There are some important tracking and measurement issues to consider when implementing RSS:

  • You should be tracking reads by embedding a uniquely-named 1-pixel gif within the <content:encoded> container. This is known as a “web bug.” Email marketers have been using web bugs to track open rates for ages.
  • You should be tracking clickthroughs by replacing all URLs in the <link> containers with clicktracked URLs. You code this in-house or you could use a hosted ASP service like SimpleFeed to do this for you. (Incidentally, Feedburner offers imprecise counts based on user’s IP not on clicktracked URLs)
  • You should be tracking circulation (# of subscribers). Again, you could use a service like Simplefeed… Feedburner, which categorizes visiting user-agents into bots, browsers, aggregators, and clients. Bots and browsers don’t generally “count” as subscribers, while a single hit from an aggregator may represent a number of readers. This number is usually revealed within the User-Agent in the server logs… for example Bloglines/2.0 (…; xx subscribers). Today, tracking readership from clients is an inexact science. Hopefully in the future, RSS newreader software will generate a hashcode from the subscriber’s email address and this hashcode would then get passed in the User-Agent on every HTTP request for the RSS feed.

I consider personalized RSS feeds to be “best practice.” As of yet I’m not seeing much yet in the way of personalization within RSS feeds, but that will come I’m sure. It has to. Having only one generic RSS feed per site is a one-size-fits-all approach that can’t scale. On the other hand, having too many feeds to choose from on a site can overwhelm the user. So how about instead you offer a single RSS feed, but it’s one where the content is personalized to the interests of the individual subscriber. Yet if the feed is being syndicated onto public websites, you’ll want to discover that (by checking the referrers in your server logs) and then make sure the RSS feed content is quite consistent from syndicated site to syndicated site so that these sites all reinforce the search engine juice of the same pages with similar link text. Or simply ask the subscriber his/her intentions (personal reading or syndication on a public website) as part of the personalization/subscription signup process.

IMPORTANT: An oft overlooked area of RSS click tracking is how to pass on the search engine juice from the syndicating sites to your destination site. Use clicktracked URLs with query string parameters kept to a minimum, then 301 redirect not 302. This is important! 302 redirects, also known as temporary redirects, can hang up the search engine juice. Search engines recommend you use 301 redirects, also known as permanent redirects. Surprisingly, Feedburner and Simplefeed both use 302 redirects. Tsk tsk!

Sites using your feeds for themed content to add to their site for SEO purposes could strip out your links or cut off the flow of the search engine juice using the nofollow rel attribute or by removing the hrefs altogether. Scan for that and then cut off any offenders’ feed access.

Some more “gotchas” if you don’t set things up right:

  • You should own your feed URL (unless you want to be forever tied to Feedburner or whatever RSS hosting service you are using). Remember the days long ago when people put their earthlink.net email addresses on their business cards? Don’t repeat that mistake with RSS feeds.
  • You need to proactively ensure your listings in the Yahoo SERPs display the “Add to My Yahoo!” link; don’t just assume it will happen. To do this, subscribe to your feed from your own My Yahoo! page (so you know you have at least one My Yahoo! subscriber), then set up your blog to automatically “ping” Yahoo! every time you post a new blog entry (I recommend using Pingomatic.com to do this because then it will also ping Technorati etc. for you too, all in one fell swoop, every time your make an update to your blog.)
  • Configure your website to allow subscribers to subscribe easily using your home page address if they don’t know your RSS feed address. That means putting <link> tags in your HTML. For example:
    <link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" title="RSS" href="http://www.stephanspencer.com/index.rdf" />
    Also add buttons to your web pages for 1-click adding to the most popular RSS newsreaders / aggregators, such as: “Subscribe in NewsGator,” “Subscribe on Bloglines,” and “Add to My Yahoo!”

RSS is great for link building. Any SEO worth his/her salt should be making use of RSS as part of a link building strategy, or at least making plans to use it soon. In addition to RSS, there are some other effective blog-related link building strategies, like:

  • Getting onto bloggers’ “blogrolls” (the list of their favorite blogs that they post on their site for all to see)
  • Getting links through “trackbacks” (excerpts of your blog posts that appear on other bloggers’ blog entries in a way that you initiate rather than them)