Feeding the search results

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This weekend I found myself helping a dozen or so relatives from across the country book trips to Rio de Janeiro. Confident in my search savvy, I whittled the fares and rates down and sent the information along. I was about to get on with my next task when the phone rang.

"Uh, those fares you sent me don't work," a relative said. "Hmm, let me see," I said, thinking, "Oh, you poor Luddite. How can you not figure out a basic travel site?" I ran through the exercise on the phone, and voil à -- there was the fare I found.

Until I clicked. And she clicked. While the results displayed a fabulous fare, clicking through to the end site revealed major sticker shock. "False advertising!" she cried. Then, it occurred to me: sometimes the search result is only as good as the feed providing the result.

Ah yes, the feed. To some, it is a simple concept. To others, it is a mysterious, intangible thing that never seems to have the same definition.

So what exactly is a feed, you ask?

Here's my try: A feed simply is a technological means of distributing content. This is not a new concept; content creators have made distribution their primary effort from day one. Take the early days of news distribution. Once there was a time when the latest telegraph technology suddenly meant that news could be sent within minutes to a destination. Unfortunately, not so many people had access to a telegraph. Eventually, collaborative wire services came into vogue, and news was distributed across more channels.

Decades later, the first customized homepages, such as MyYahoo, allowed users to select which news sources would display content on their page. This was the beginning of the feed as we know it today. In fact, Ramanathan Guha is credited with creating one of the earliest versions of RSS for the My Netscape portal.

Back then, major deals had to be struck before content could be syndicated, but the technology was roughly the same. Today, RSS feeds allow anyone to create or receive a feed from just about any source. From content to products to even advertisements, a stream of information can be syndicated or subscribed to.

Most direct marketers know that Yahoo offers feeds, known as Search Submit, and that shopping feeds in general are critical to online sales. (Make that having fresh feeds. In my case above, the feed of flight fares clearly went stale.) So critical that the Association for Retail Technical Standards, which is a part of the National Retail Federation, introduced a standard feed format last year.

But feeds don't stop at simply providing news or offering up products. Today's RSS ad networks have a whole new world order in mind. Pheedo, for example, encourages users to interact with ads using social media widgets they call "engagement triggers." FeedBurner, on the other hand, focuses on gleaning insight from stats on the feed audience.

Curious to learn more? I leave you with short, explanatory videos from each firm:

Feedburner and Pheedo.

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