By Sheryl Canter, PC Magazine
July 17, 2000 9:00 PM PT
Creating a Web site that's interesting enough to hold a visitor's attention the first time isn't so hard. But what about afterward? How do you get people to come back? Obviously, you need dynamic content, but updating a Web site every day with new and interesting material is a full-time job. Many small businesses simply don't have the time or resources.
Don't despair: There's a solution. You can use syndicated content--a concept borrowed from the newspaper industry. The syndicator gives you some HTML code to paste into your Web page, and then changes the content automatically--often daily--without your intervention.
There's a surprisingly broad range of content available for syndication--weather, news headlines, tickers with information ranging from stock prices to fishing news, cartoons, tips, quotes, jokes, pictures, articles, puzzles, and games. Syndicated content can be used to create sophisticated, customized portals (see Figure 1), but note that some syndicators restrict use of their content. For example, the cartoon "Hobnob Inn" (www.reuben.org/Anderson/free.nr.html) can only be used on personal or nonprofit sites.
The Dark Side
Before you get too excited, let's talk about the disadvantages. Some syndicated content is free; some costs money. Free syndicated content is generally stored on the syndicator's server, and this can slow the loading of your Web page as other servers are polled for content. The delay can sometimes be significant.
Also, even the free content isn't completely free. The price is a provider byline, a link to the syndicator's site, and sometimes ads. Some providers--SiteMiner.com, for example--let you forgo the ads in exchange for a monthly subscription fee. But even without the advertisements, usage terms for free syndicated content often require you to include a link to the content provider.
The problem with these off-site links is that they tend to leech visitors away from your site. This is especially true with news headlines, where visitors must leave your site to read the full stories. Other types of content are less likely to lure visitors away, but a mouse click on a cartoon can still take a visitor away to view "more like this."
On the bright side, some syndicators will pay you for click-throughs or sales that result from click-throughs. The cartoon syndicator CartoonLink (www.cartoonlink.net) will pay you $2 for every print sale generated as a result of a click-through from your site.
With smaller syndicators, there is another problem: They can disappear without warning. That wonderful syndicated cartoon you've been featuring may suddenly come up on your home page as a big blank square.
For this reason, you can't completely ignore your Web site and leave daily changes to the syndicators. It's a good idea to create a Web page containing all the syndicated content used throughout your site and check that page each day for holes. You'll remember to check it if you store this Web page locally and load it as your home page.
The biggest problem with syndicated content is that you can't control its quality. A syndicated cartoonist may promise not to be vulgar, but how do you know that his definition of vulgar coincides with yours? A daily tip suggesting interesting Web sites may promote a dud--or worse yet, a site that no longer exists. Jokes may be tasteless, articles illiterate, news irrelevant. But if they appear on your Web site, they have your endorsement.
Because publishing syndicated content makes you an affiliate of the content provider, syndicators are similarly concerned about whom they're associated with--the quality of your Web site. The usage agreement of most syndicators prohibits use of their content on pornographic or hate sites.
Where To Find It
There are dozens of sites that offer syndicated content. Some are self-syndicators that provide their own text, graphics, or audio content for syndication. Other syndicators offer a variety of third-party content. The largest of these is iSyndicate (www.isyndicate.com), a marketplace where you can find syndicated content and offer your own to the world. Some smaller syndicators syndicate content that would normally be distributed through e-mail. Each day, they upload the content to their servers, where your Web page can access it. The sidebar "Sources for Syndicated Content" lists a number of sites, organized by content type.
Though iSyndicate (Figure 2) is the largest and best-known of the syndication sites, it is not necessarily the best source for small-business owners. The company syndicates nearly 900 sources to over 200,000 Web sites, but only a fraction of these are available for free. Most of the content is licensed and costs from several hundred to several thousand dollars per month, depending on your selections.
The iSyndicate headline editor lets you create new headline categories and select feed sources to include on your site, but you can't change the colors and dimensions as you can with its competitor, Moreover.com. Also, changes to your iSyndicate headline selections can take as much as half an hour to show up on your Web site, whereas changes appear immediately with Moreover.com.
iSyndicate's Express service also lets you create an online store where you sell products from other vendors in exchange for an 8 percent commission. This is essentially a Web version of the old-style franchise store. Numerous Web-based stores offer affiliate programs; the advantage of going through iSyndicate is that you have access to many stores at once.
When it comes to free content, the smaller syndicators often offer the more interesting options. Samples of the products offered by such syndicators are shown in Figure 3.
One of the better sources for cartoons is Comic Exchange (www.comicexchange.com). It uses ad server technology to deliver its cartoons, so a new cartoon is displayed every time the user refreshes your page. The service is free; it is funded by a banner ad exchange. You display a banner ad along with the cartoon, and for every two click-throughs on your site to cartoons with ad banners, your banner will appear once on the network.
CyberTips (www.cybertip4theday.com) offers daily, scrolling tips in 21 categories, such as auto, beauty, computer, and diet. A mouse click on the scrolling text will stop or restart the scrolling. The tips are interesting enough that visitors will want to check them out, and the moving text adds interest to a Web page. The Weather Guys (www.weatherguys.com) offers a box displaying current weather conditions for the zip code of your choice.
If you prefer your daily tidbits in the form of a ticker, try Rhoades Network Media (www.youbethejudge.com/network/triviatoday.htm). Tickers are offered in eight categories (trivia, strange news, cycle news, hikewalk news, radio, cool links, WebCam, and news). Interspersed with content headlines are links to advertisements and random member sites, and a list of all member sites. When you register, your site is added to the list of member sites. So although clicking on the ticker will take visitors away from your site, you also will get hits from visitors to other sites who click away to yours.
Adding The Content
Once you've found the content you want, the next step is to add it to your Web site. The syndicator gives you a snippet of HTML code that you insert into your Web page; this accesses the content on the syndicator's server. Sometimes the code is just one line; sometimes it runs several hundred lines.
Some syndicators, such as Moreover.com, offer wizards for customizing the content's format. Still, you'll need to do a little tweaking to integrate it with the rest of your Web page, and this must be done manually. You can use a plain-text editor such as Notepad, or use the plain-text feature of your HTML editor to add the snippets and make any necessary changes. You don't need to be an HTML expert, but you do need some basic knowledge of HTML tags. For example, you may want to change the background color, change the alignment, or place the content in a table to control its placement on the page.
Syndication is a pretty good deal for the syndicator. Offering free content in exchange for a link back to your site basically constitutes free advertising. If your content is unique and provides enough added value, you can license it and charge a fee. For better exposure, you may want to partner with one of the large syndication companies, though this may involve submitting your content for approval and sharing your licensing fees.
Syndicated content is a time-saver for Webmasters and a source of revenue and exposure for providers. You can take advantage of syndicated content to create sophisticated pages that function as Web portals.
Sheryl Canter is a contributing editor of PC Magazine.
Sources for Syndicated Content