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Home » MetaJanuary 2006 » MLB Using RSS for Product Placement

MLB Using RSS for Product Placement

Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I don’t think RSS should be used to advertise products. I am committed to keeping my site ad-free. What do you folks think about this? Here’s the e-mail I sent to mlb.com:

MLBAdTo whom it may concern:
I have an RSS news ticker on my blog that is derived from a Google search of RSS feeds for “red sox.” Today I noticed that an ad for 2004 Red Sox DVD Set appeared on my site. I am extremely alarmed that mlb.com is now using RSS as a way to promote its goods and services. Here is the link.

By choice, I have kept my site ad-free. It appears that mlb.com is taking advantage of technology to insert itself as a commercial presence through a typically non-commercial medium. I believe I do enough to promote the league by owning a site that encourages discussion about baseball and I highly resent that MLB would take advantage of RSS for advertising purposes. I have rejected other advertisers who would pay for that space.

Best Regards,
Joanna Hicks

January 30, 6:30 PM Update: I thought the service that provides my ticker may have slipped in an ad, but I did a search of RSS feeds through Google News and the DVD set is appearing as a news item. I am sure this goes against the Google News philsophy, which you can read at this link. I found a method to get in touch with Google News through this feedback form. If you would like to take a stand against advertisements via RSS as I do, please do drop them a line. I recommend including a link that shows the current results of a search for “red sox” on Google News showing the results below.


January 31, 9:10 AM Update: I corresponded with Dave Winer, the pioneering software engineer and leading contributor to RSS 2.0. He stated that this is actually a common use of RSS and not one that he endorses. Since this is my first encounter with such a feed item, I was taken aback. I’m taking steps to ensure that no further advertisements without my consent appear here.


I guess MLB isn't making enough money. Now they want free advertising. Fight the power, Empy!

The almighty dollar's powers strike again. No one is immune. Good intentions, Joanna, to buck the system and remain ad free.

How can you keep the ads out? Some kind of filtering? I'm interested in the technical details.

As far as I can tell, RSS does not currently have a way to tag feeds or feed items as “content” versus “advertising” and Dave Winer implied as much in his email to me.

What I did, twitch, was use Bill Bercik’s WebPasties, with which I can choose multiple feeds. The current feed only contains the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and Providence Journal feeds. I may switch back to using the RSS generated by a Google News search once the advertisement becomes obsoleted because I like the variety this particular feed brings up (Forbes, out of town papers, and so forth), but I will continue to use Bercik’s product because he is extremely good about fixing bugs and adding features for his users. You really do get what you pay for, and I had no qualms subscribing to his service.

Going forward I will monitor the Google News RSS search and report any commercial use. As a stated in the post, as far as I can tell, they would be the strongest allies in keeping RSS feeds content-rich.

It’s interesting how such incidents make you want to stay ahead of the spammers and advertisers. The next step for me is to look into different RSS parsers so that I might create my own eclectic Red Sox RSS without relying completely on Google News.

This should be easy enough; sites can either advertise their RSS feeds as commercial free, or not. If not, you can ask them before syndicating their feed.

Really, I don't see why this is a big deal.

I think RSS should be used for whatever the heck people want to use it for and if you don't like a feed then don't friggin subscribe to it.

But I certainly do not want anyone putting any restrictions on how RSS and feeds are used. Sheesh.

Very interesting post, though I don't entirely agree.

I totally understand (and agree with) your desire to keep your site free of ads, and RSS is an excellent tool for you to have in pulling together content for your site; the fact that you pull down an RSS feed of the Google News results for a search on "red sox" (or whatever you want, for that matter) is huuuuge -- thanks, Dave Winer!

Where I need some convincing is the next step: why does the fact that you don't want to display ads on your site mean that Google shouldn't put ads in the content that they're providing to the Web at large via RSS?

I think that Google should absolutely make it clear at the outset whether there will be ads in their feed, and whether they deem it acceptable to strip any ads they might include when using that feed content, but I'm uncomfortable with saying that RSS is okay for certain types of content but not for other.

Your Jan. 30, 6:30pm update also points to an area of some concern for me: rightly or wrongly, the item that concerned you was "news" according to Google News. I think that in the majority of cases there's a clear "walks like a duck" test that works for deciding whether or not something is advertising, but there's still a big enough grey area to give me pause. I'm much more comfortable putting the onus on the individual who's using the feed to decide what is and isn't appropriate for their use.

One other note, and please take it in the not-snarky spirit intended: the TOS for Google News feeds asks that you...

1. attribute the feeds to Google News.
2. attribute each news item to its provider, using the provider name as it appears in the Google News feed.
3. include a link to the Google News cluster of related articles for each news item, using the link provided in the Google News feed.
4. identify the search terms used to generate the feed.

...so if you're currently using Google News for your news items, you should probably get in line with their TOS before you get too far into trying to get them to change the content of those feeds.

Again, liked the post and will be following the discussion here with great interest.

So how much are you paying to use the content that google has provided.. oh, that's right Nothing.

Let's not even get started that Google is now redistributing content that they in fact do not own.

Quite whining and pay for the news if you want to control how it appears and what is in the stream.

Duncan, it seems a bit of subterfuge to me that the feed item for the product was listed as "MLB.com," not "MLB.com Shop." MLB Advanced Media used their standing as a source of information to put forth what is essentially an ad.

I'm not in agreement for using RSS for "whatever." RSS leveled the playing for information from various sources and enables almost instantaneous publication. It's not personal email or IM, something that can be constrained by limiting your message to selected parties. I don't want to see this powerful distribution of information to be suffocated or overwhelmed by commercial messages.

Whitney, thanks for your clarification of Google News's TOS. I'm something of a novice to RSS (this is a baseball blog, for heaven's sake), so I used tickermyfeed.com, which includes an automatic field option for Google search. I have since subscribed to Webpasties, which doesn't have an option to include source. I'll have to request that feature from Bill Bercik.

Will, I am now paying for a service to better control what gets posted on my site. Thanks for the helpful advice, though. I won't delve into the issues about having to pay for information that companies probably want to be widely distributed, anyway.

I haven't even begun to whine; did you guys see that Alex Gonzalez signed with the Red Sox...?

Thanks Joanna.

Just to clarify, since the original post does not make this clear. The issue here really has nothing to do with MLB.com publishing ads in rss (I see no evidence they have done so), and has everything to do with Google News picking up an item which has questionable newsworthiness. That's the real issue here, as others have identified.

Ben, I disagree somewhat with your statement. I think that there is more than one issue at work here.

First of all, I don't like that mlb.com used RSS to promote a product through its store, particularly because it wasn't labeled specifically as an ad. Secondly there is the issue for RSS news engines with regard to filtering news from ads, and, by extension, any sort of filtering at all. The second situation is compounded by the fact that there is no method to mark feeds or their contents in accordance with their aim: distributing information, selling goods and/or services, or any other reason a feed is distributed.

As for lack of evidence, the screenshot in the post shows a feed link that directly links to an online shopping page. Isn't that an advertisement and isn't that proof?

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