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Syndication: Sharing Content Across Websites

What is syndication and systems use it to distribute information across a medium such as the internet? Read this article to find out as well as how systems benefits by content sharing.

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By: Rutger Engelhard AND Sebastiaan van de Vliet
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May 15, 2003

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What is syndication and systems use it to distribute information across a medium such as the internet? Read this article to find out as well as how systems benefits by content sharing.

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 members.

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.

DISCLAIMER: The content provided in this article is not warranted or guaranteed by Developer Shed, Inc. The content provided is intended for entertainment and/or educational purposes in order to introduce to the reader key ideas, concepts, and/or product reviews. As such it is incumbent upon the reader to employ real-world tactics for security and implementation of best practices. We are not liable for any negative consequences that may result from implementing any information covered in our articles or tutorials. If this is a hardware review, it is not recommended to open and/or modify your hardware.

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