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Syndication Sharing Content Across Websites

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Rutger Engelhard & Sebastiaan

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User since: 16 Jun 2002

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The Internet is rapidly becoming a popular way to

disseminate content or to collect and redistribute it via other websites and

intranets. The term syndication was originally used in the world of print media to

refer to a news agency that sells news articles, comic strips or crossword puzzles

to many newspapers under the assumption that readers buy only one of them. On the

web, the idea of content syndication is basically similar - one party makes the

content of its website available in such a manner that many other parties can pick

it up via the Internet, automatically and as often as needed.

Not only news agencies use syndication to distribute their news. Record companies syndicate advertisements

promoting their latest album releases, which are picked up and used by music

retailers to add value to their websites. Similarly, international corporations

syndicate business information, and stock exchanges around the world publish share

prices in real time. Banks, investment brokers and institutional investors pick up

these newsfeeds to monitor developments in a particular industry sector or even in

specific companies and to watch trends in the stock markets.

Syndicated content is distributed via so-called newsfeeds that are received and displayed on other

websites, intranets or personal desktops. New applications are being developed to display syndicated content on devices other than websites and intranets, such as

personal digital assistants (PDAs) and mobile phones. In this issue we discuss how content syndication can benefit your organization. We explain the technology in

clear and non-technical language and suggest some issues that you may wish to address before you decide that your organization should also start using this Internet technology.

How can content syndication benefit your organization?

The decision as to whether your organization actually needs to adopt content

syndication, and how best to use this Internet technology, will depend on your

organization's mission, and the purpose and functions of your website. For example:

  1. Content distribution: Your organization wishes to promote the information services

    offered by your website. Applying syndication, you can offer a newsfeed via which

    headlines and links to the content on your site can be picked up by any number of

    organizations and displayed on their websites or intranets.
  2. Content gathering: Your organization wishes to monitor developments in a particular field of interest.

    You can pick up other organizations' newsfeeds (one or more) and display the

    headlines and links on your intranet. In this way, your staff will be able to access

    - via your intranet - daily updated headline news from various selected websites.

    This feature of content syndication could also add value to your website by

    displaying the latest headline news and links of selected organizations on your

    website. This could be useful, for example, if your organization is preparing a

    conference, conducting an advocacy campaign, or monitoring a specific situation,

    such as a regional conflict.
  3. Content brokering: Your organization functions as a

    knowledge centre, and wishes both to distribute and to gather content related to one

    or more topics. In this case, you could strengthen your organization's position by

    distributing your own content as well as providing web pages where visitors can find

    thematic headline information with links to the complete articles posted on a large

    number of other sites.
  4. Content networking: Your organization is part of a

    knowledge sharing network that wishes to exchange content among the members on a

    regular basis. For this, each participating organization could install a newsfeed on

    its website and pick up the headlines and links provided by the other network


These are still early days for content syndication, and new applications of this

novel means of exchanging and sharing information are actively being explored. For

example, content syndication can be used to compile automatically the content of

email newsletters, as well as to update discussion forums, conference agendas,

theatre programmes, or sales promotion campaigns for games, photos and software.

What Exactly Is Content Syndication?

Content syndication on the web refers to a technology that facilitates the distribution of content from one computer to any

number of other computers via the Internet. Content syndication does not entail the

distribution of the complete articles, images or files. Rather, it offers

information about the website where the content can be found, and headline

information with links to the web pages where the complete content can be accessed.

The basic element of content syndication is the syndication file, which is located

on the web server of the distributor of the content. This file contains information

about the site, the headlines and the links to web pages containing the content.

For example, the syndication file on the server of a newspaper could include:

  1. the

    title of the newspaper;
  2. the headlines of articles published on its website; and
  3. links to the full texts of these articles. An example of such a syndication

    file can be viewed by opening the BBC's news syndication file in your browser.

Content syndication was first popularized by Netscape in 1999, for adding and updating news

from selected web sources to its personalized My.Netscape pages.

For this purpose, Netscape developed RSS ('Rich Site

Summary' or renamed by some: 'Really Simple Syndication'), a format for syndication files based on

XML, a computer language used for describing, storing and exchanging information.

With these RSS files, Netscape no longer required an army of editors to gather

content to fill its ever-growing portal. Instead, webmasters or content distributors

could create newsfeeds by placing RSS files on their servers and submitting

information about their exact location. All that Netscape then needed to do was to

collect these newsfeeds at regular intervals and display their contents on its

portal, thus offering its visitors a continuously updated set of headlines and links

to the latest information posted on many websites.

Netscape thus created a mutually

beneficial relationship between the visitors to its portal and the content

distributors. The visitors could view the latest news headlines published on a wide

range of websites from which they could make their own selection, and the content

distributors benefited from the increased numbers of visitors who followed the links

attached to the headlines to their websites.

Syndication Servers

News can be syndicated directly among websites or intranets, or it can be gathered by so-called

syndication servers, or content aggregators, that bring together many newsfeeds in a

central location. Examples include Moreover,

Syndic8 and News is Free.

These syndication

servers offer many facilities for selecting newsfeeds (e.g. BBC World News, SciDev

or Oneworld) and displaying their content in a variety of ways. For example,

syndicated content from selected newsfeeds can be included on an organization's

website simply by cutting and pasting a single line of code into the HTML code of

the webpage where this content is to be displayed. Once this code has been inserted,

any changes in the content (such as new articles added to or old ones deleted from

the BBC World News section or Oneworld site) are reflected in the headline

information and links displayed on your website.

What Issues Need to be Addressed?

From the point of view of the management of an organization, the main challenges

posed by content syndication are not technical. Content syndication is a low-tech

Internet technology that does not require new equipment or software. All your

technical team has to do is to create a newsfeed by placing an RSS file on your web

server, and keep it up to date. If your website has been set up on the basis of a

content management system, a function can be added to generate an RSS file and to update it automatically

whenever the content of your website is changed. Otherwise, changes to an RSS file

can be made manually using a simple word processor such as Notepad, or with so-

called 'scrapers', i.e. services available on the web to generate and automatically

update an RSS file (e.g. myRSS).

For any organization that decides to take advantage of content syndication, the major challenges are

related to the generation and regular maintenance of the content, as well as the

selection of newsfeeds to appear on your website or intranet. For example,

  1. If you

    decide to syndicate your organization's web content, considerable effort will be

    needed on an ongoing basis to ensure the quality of the information, in terms of

    style, clarity and timeliness. For instance, if a visitor clicks on an eye-catching

    headline, but this leads only to a dull, incomprehensible and/or out of date piece

    of text on your site this will do nothing to enhance your organization's image and

    credibility, and that visitor is unlikely to return.
  2. Alternatively, if you decide

    to include the newsfeeds of other organizations on your own website, then these must

    be chosen with care. A poor selection of newsfeeds may result in a display of

    headlines that may be inappropriate for your site - for example, the scope may be

    too broad, they may be promoting own institutional or donors' interests, etc.

In short, if you wish to engage your organization - as a content distributor, gatherer,

broker or net worker - in content syndication, you may need to review your

information and communication strategy to ensure that high priority is given to the

content management of your website or intranet.

Rutger Engelhard and Sebastiaan van der Vliet run a research and consulting firm that provides clear expert advice on Internet solutions for organizations working in the fields of international cooperation and sustainable development. They hope to dispel some of the hype that surrounds the Internet and to remove the mystification of technology.

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