Eric Enge interviews Google's Dick Costolo

Published: April 28, 2008

Dick Costolo Photo

Dick is a Group Product Manager at Google, Inc. Prior to this role, he cofounded and was CEO of FeedBurner Inc., the leading provider of online media distribution and audience engagement services for blogs and feeds. Previously, he cofounded and was CEO of Spyonit.com which was sold to 724 Solutions in September 2000.

Prior to Spyonit, Dick cofounded Burning Door Networked Media, a web design and development consulting company. Burning Door was acquired by Digital Knowledge Assets in October 1996. Prior to Burning Door, Dick was at Andersen Consulting for 8 years, where his roles included Senior Manager, Strategy, Application Products Group and Senior Manager, Application Infrastructure, Eagle Advanced Technology Group.

Google searches may also reveal Dick's theater experience which includes, among others, numerous roles and performances with Chicago's Annoyance Theater, television appearances in the UK, and several years of improv shows at international comedy festivals in Edinburgh, Montreal, and Australia.

Dick holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from the University of Michigan.

Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: A great place to start would be to talk about some numbers about how the RSS market is doing today, and how many subscribes, consumers, etc.

Dick Costolo: The FeedBurner service has just continued to grow at an amazing rate; we see acceleration in the growth of publishers, acceleration in the growth of feeds, acceleration in the growth of the number of feeds per publisher. If you looked back and segmented the history of the RSS market, you would say that in 2003, 2004, you were generally looking at one publisher, one blog, one feed; and then sort of accelerate through time to the present.

You see today where people have any number of feeds that are associated with them personally; they have a Flickr feed, they have a blog feed, they have a Twitter feed, they have a Friend Feed, and aggregate feeds of all their other feeds.

There is just tremendous growth in the number and variety of feeds overall, and a tremendous growth in the overall number of subscriptions. Like the growth of feeds, you continue to see growth and variety in the way feeds are subscribed to. Again, it used to be that most people would subscribe to feeds using a downloaded RSS aggregator or a feed reading client.

Lots of that has moved onto the web. Google Reader, for example, is widely popular. People subscribe to feeds in all sorts of different places now; BlackBerries, iTunes and so forth. So, they continue to grow in all dimensions, and I think again with the rise of these social feed platforms like Friend Feed and Twitter and so forth, they will just continue to see more and more of that.

Eric Enge: Right. So, do you have any sense of how many people are consuming feeds in the world today?

Dick Costolo: No, I mean I don't have any specific numbers that I could give you on that front other than just to say that we just continue to see growth in all dimensions there; publishers, feeds, and subscribers.

Eric Enge: Right. So, if we look and start characterizing some of the feed aspects, and clearly there are things like feeds being used purely for content syndication purposes, so it's kind of like a delivery vehicle for that purpose. And then, there are feeds being delivered just to a subscriber base for people who are interested in a set of content.

So, if we look at the content syndication piece, any sense as to how that part of the market has been growing?

Dick Costolo: I think that that's still an emerging phenomena that I would say is in its infancy as compared to where it could be and where it probably will be in a couple of years. For example we see a lot of people using our services to re-syndicate their feeds to other sites or aggregate a collection of feeds and create another site from those feeds.

I think that's something that we will see more and more of. So, I would say that that aspect of content syndication is still on its infancy. And, the reason I think that, is just because you are seeing with the rise of all these different social services; you are starting to see conversation happen about individual people and individual news items in lots of different place.

There is conversation on Digg; there is conversation on Friend Feed, there is conversation in around shared items on Google Reader. And, you are starting to see people want to recentralize those conversations that they are involved in, in some interesting ways. I think that that will happen via syndicating these feeds back to a centralization point. It will just be interesting to see how that happens.

Like I said the first examples of that that we are seeing are people doing things like splicing several FeedBurner feeds together, and then running one of our services to re-syndicate those back on their website. I think you'll start to see more and more of that, but it's still in its infancy. You get lots of questions about it; we get lots of inquiries about the right way to do it. But, I think there is a lot of opportunity there and it would be interesting to see what happens.

Eric Enge: Right. I mean the concept of aggregating feeds into a master feed I think is what you are talking about there; did I hear that right?

Dick Costolo: Yea. I am talking about both that and re-syndicating feeds back to other sites.

So, basically this notion of hypersyndication; so if I have got content that I distribute by an RSS feed and that feed has subscribers, that's one thing. But, I might want to also syndicate that content to other, either contextually similar properties or other properties that I own; maybe I am in network of, maybe I am a network of properties, right?

I have got all these feeds that I have subscribers to; but I now want to syndicate content from one property onto my other properties that are displaying contextually relevant content and so forth. I just think that there is a lot of opportunity there that hasn't been tapped into a lot yet, and we will see a lot more of that.

Eric Enge: Right. I know for my own I am looking at putting together a master feed, because I have the Stone Temple blog, and then I have the Stone Temple article series, which is separate from the blog, and then there is actually a podcast feed.

Then, there is the fact that I write on Search Engine Land, Search Engine Watch, and SEOmoz, all three places. I am thinking of creating something that I call the Everything Eric Feed.

Dick Costolo: Precisely what I am talking about; you see people both wanting to aggregate all the pieces of themselves into one place; and then offering that up for subscription, and then wanting to re-syndicate that back out to other spots.

So, for example on your Stone Temple Consulting page, you might want to have all the other headlines about you just from all your other feeds there, right? So, those are just couple examples of what I am driving at with this. I think that we are seeing with this notion of re-syndication or hypersyndication in its infancy.

Eric Enge: Yes indeed. Well, currently I am using the Google AJAX RSS API to render the four latest posts from the blog on the homepage of Stone Temple. I could see creating a master feed; and then taking the last eight or so of things that I have written anywhere, and putting it right there.

Dick Costolo: I think you will start to see more and more services like that emerge, giving you those capabilities and providing these kinds of hypersyndication opportunities

Eric Enge: Right. So, what tips would you give to someone that was just starting out and trying to use RSS feeds to distribute their content? Let's start from an implementation perspective?

Dick Costolo: Well, the implementation perspective is pretty straightforward; most content management engines now create a feed for you. I think that the challenge most people have is that when they get first get started is they don't make it obvious how to subscribe to that feed.

One of the things that we always tell people to do is immediately enable auto discovery, which is you can go into an RSS subscription engine and say, go find me the feed at www.SEOmoz.com and it will go find out if there is RSS feed on that site. But, what we traditionally recommend to people getting started is to make sure and go ahead and pretty boldly popularize what your feed address is and where it is, and how to subscribe to it on right up there by front and center on the top of your site.

One of the other services we operate is email subscription. So, we have a lot of people out there who live in their email client, and you get email, and like to deal with content via emails. So, we have a feed to email service that we offer to publishers; they basically take that email posts from their feed that they convert them to an email, send them out to email subscribers. Those allow you to get a wider chunk of audience that you might not otherwise get via straight RSS subscription.

Eric Enge: We use the feed to email service; another thing we use that's pretty neat is the Headline Animator.

Dick Costolo: Yeah. And so, the idea of Headline Animator is that it's another way to promote subscription to your feed. It's a service we operate that simply creates an animated graphic from your last "n" headlines and you can tweak how many of them you want to put in there. People use it as an email signature file or they will post it in discussion forms where they are posted frequently.

That just gives people another way to subscribe to everything else you are publishing.

Eric Enge: Right. One of the subtle things of this is the interaction of this kind of content with search engines. There are a couple of aspects to that; one is when you are taking syndicated content and displaying it on your site. It could be perceived as duplicate content, and it's embedded in JavaScript, it's potentially not even perceived by the search engines. So, I think there is some subtleties there for people to deal with.

Dick Costolo: Yes. The folks at Google have done a very good job with all of the redundancies around feeds. This is irrespective of FeedBurner, but just feeds in general. I think Matt Cutts is probably a better authority on that subject then I. But, I know that they have addressed all that; the notion of content redundancy across the site and the feed in the past, and have pretty effective way of dealing with that.

We specifically put a lot of the re-syndication stuff into JavaScript so that it wouldn't cause problems for people who might ask how come this article is showing up at a link on this site when it's meant to be referencing this content over here. We did that intentionally, and then I think in the future people want to be able to re-syndicate headlines elsewhere and have them show up as a matter of course and as raw text in the content, that's terribly doable, right?

You will be able to take as I said; I think you'll have services that allow you to take a feed and re-syndicate it onto a completely different site, re-syndicating, and re-blogging it, or whatever you want to call it. So, we made that initial foray with the JavaScript intentionally, and then like I said I think it will be these additional re-syndication services that offer you the ability to create completely new sites from the feed that will be not JavaScript based, but their own content management system.

Eric Enge: Right. So, one of the subtleties at least in a short time is that, you maybe need to view this use of syndicated content as a site experience thing rather than getting search engine traffic on that content.

Dick Costolo: Yes. It's meant to be more about what I want to promote. I want to expose all those different places where my content resides to my various readers wherever they maybe, and this is a simple tool to do that. We didn't build it with any sort of natural search optimization in mind.

We built it with content promotion, content exposure, and network exposure in mind.

Eric Enge: Right. There was one time that FeedBurner implemented the ability to embed a NoIndex tag in your feed. My sense is based on Matt Cutt's work, that that's really not an issue anymore.

Dick Costolo: I think that's correct, yeah. And again, those guys would know a lot more about that than I, but I believe they've gone ahead and dealt with that. And, of course you would have expected them to, since there were lots of other places using feeds besides us then; it was leading to multiple copies of the content etc.

Eric Enge: Indeed; not a good thing. So, what about monetization?

Dick Costolo: One of the reasons we both wanted to do the deal was because there was a FeedBurner ad network, but it serves only a small fraction of our total publishers. I think on our front page now we have something like over 850,000 total publishers within FeedBurner.

Well, with our little ad network that we built at FeedBurner, we were only able to serve a fraction of those publishers, because we were doing it the way you would as a small company kind of representing the larger publishers and going out and selling advertising again to those larger publishers. It made a lot more sense once we had that kind of scale of publishers; well over 800,000 to join forces with Google and leverage the scalable ad serving technology that Google has.

So, that's what we really have been working on. The thing we've been working on over the course of the last 9 months since the acquisition happened, is integrating all of the FeedBurner technology into Google's existing backend infrastructure so that we can start to provide monetization services to a much broader swath of our publisher base.

One of the things that we've seen time and time again in both, emailed into us over the years, forum posts to us, and then survey result is that a great percentage of our publishers would like to be able to monetize their content and syndication as they do on their site; and again that's what we are driving towards here.

Eric Enge: Right. So that takes the form of ads within the feeds themselves.

Dick Costolo: It takes the form of ads within the feeds, but I think that we will also be able to start to offer additional monetization services going forward. I don't know what those will look like; we've been spending the great majority of our time getting FeedBurner integrated into Google's backend so that we can offer existing monetization services to a much broader slot of publishers.

But, we are thinking about the future of content distribution; the future of syndication, and what publishers want from it. How they'd like to monetize it and so forth. I think you will see new monetization opportunities along the way.

Eric Enge: Right. So, how big a subscriber base does somebody need to have before they begin to be a candidate to make interesting money. If you have 3 subscribers, you are probably not a candidate, right?

Dick Costolo: Sure. It's exactly same as monetizing their site, right?

Eric Enge: Right.

Dick Costolo: If you've got 10 page views a day, you are not going to make a million dollars a year; that's just not the way it's going to go. But, it's also the case that feeds that have very specific targeted niche content are attractive to advertisers, even if they don't have huge TechCrunch or New York Times size numbers. You don't have to have a million subscribers to be able to make a decent amount of money and that's exactly what we are trying to get to here in a very near term is to offer monetization services to everybody. People can figure out for themselves whether they think it's worth it or not.

Eric Enge: Right. So, if you have a thousand subscribers, you can make some money?

Dick Costolo: Sure. The more targeted the content is, the more interesting it will be to advertisers. Some people prefer to write about a wide variety of topics and make a blog more personal, and, some people prefer to write about very, very targeted industry specific stuff that obviously has lot of applicability to advertisers.

Eric Enge: Do you have any metrics you can share?

Dick Costolo: We have a rate card that we sell our ads based on, and they are currently CPM based; and they are any where from $3 CPM ads up to $12 sometimes $15 CPM ads for very specific targeted content. The click through rates on those are, the kinds of click through rates you'd expect to see from well-targeted, audience-based advertising. They are similar to all of the other kinds of click thought rates in the industry.

I think that the interesting opportunities around monetization are when we can to do things like provide publishers with the ability to do both; audience based advertising, (CPM based) and performance based advertising. There are some feeds that are going to be more appropriate for performance based advertising.

For example, in search, when I am searching for something, my keywords say something about my intentions, and that is a great opportunity for direct response performance based advertising. Some feeds are like that.

There are feeds of daily offers for example, so those kinds of feeds of daily offers, where those people providing those feeds of daily offers also want to run ads, are great opportunities for performance based advertising. That's something we never really did at FeedBurner, and that's something Google is very, very good at. We are hoping in a very, very short term here as we wrap up integration to be able to provide the spectrum of advertising opportunities that Google can enable.

Eric Enge: Right. Well, the beauty is the performance based model has got such good risk management for the advertiser, and for the site owner who has really well targeted content; they actually should be able to make more money than in a pure CPM model.

Dick Costolo: That's absolutely right. Then, there are other cases, where you've got people who write great fashion blogs, where the audience is very targeted, or video fashion feeds where the audience is very, very targeted; and you've got brands that want to be in front of that audience. Those people are not going to buy online, their luxury brands maybe or there are other kinds of brands that people aren't necessarily going to buy online, but those brands want to be in front of that audience and those are great opportunities for CPM ads.

So, we need to be able to get the point where we can offer different flavors to our publisher base; and that's where we've been working seriously on here for the last 9 months.

Eric Enge: Right. I know you can't talk about specifics of your plans. But, can you talk about trends that you see in monetization and things that will probably come into market at some point in the near future?

Dick Costolo: Sure. We see two interesting trends in monetization specific to syndication. One is that, as in the rest of the mobile internet's world, Europe and Asia Pacific there is just a far greater mobile adoption of syndication than there is in the US.

So, I think we will see lots of different kinds of monetization opportunities. Well, we are already seeing lots of different kinds of monetization opportunities overseas where mobile is a bigger platform than it is here. So, that's one interesting thing that we see happening; and again another benefit of integrating, of being part of Google and integrating with Google is we will be able to provide those kinds of services to international customers and international publishers in short order.

I think that the second monetization trend that we are seeing is the emergence of publisher networks. Within feeds, we've got lots and lots of publishers that have been combining feeds of a specific type together. For example we have had this venture capital network for quite a while now, which is a network of a bunch of then VCs who all have blogs and feeds. And, they have networked them together into a VC network feed that advertiser can buy.

That's similar to a trend that you see in web site advertising as well, where you've got the emergence of these network tools that a lot of publishers use to bargain. They offer themselves up as a group to specific advertisers; and I think that that will both continue, both on sites and on feeds.

Eric Enge: Yes. Presumably as a group they are more interesting to deal with and, and they can negotiate something a little better for themselves.

Dick Costolo: It just makes sense to provide self organizing tools, and help these folks find each other and create communities of affinity. It may also be the case that people want to create those without monetizing them, right and that's fine too. It just makes sense to provide the tools, and then people can choose to monetize the community or not.

Eric Enge: Let's talk a little bit about the analytics capabilities in FeedBurner today. Can you start with an overview of that?

Dick Costolo: Yes. The core competence of the original FeedBurner was to be able to manage and report on the number of subscribers to a feed. The way feeds are accessed is different than the way sites are accessed, in the following way. Feed Readers, let's say Google Reader for example go request your feed on your site let's say every half hour over the course of the day, and then update that feed in Google Reader.

Another reader that someone has got installed on their desktop might go request your feed once an hour; once every half hour, once every five minutes depending on how the person on the desktop has configured it. If you just counted hits, we would see a tremendous number or visits to your feed; but those don't correspond at all to how many people are subscribing your feed.

The person with the desktop feed reader that's got it configures to go pull your feed every five minutes might only actually go look at your feed once in that day, and while you had 400 hits from that person, it's really only one subscriber. Conversely, while Google Reader is only pulling your feed every half hour, or every hour for a total of 24 times a day it may, your feed might have 1,000 subscribers.

What FeedBurner did was apply some intelligence to the kinds of the types of accesses to your feed and interpret those, so that we can report to you how many subscribers to your feed you have instead of just a fixed number that doesn't really make any sense in the feed world. That was always the sort of the core basic offering of FeedBurner; how many people on a daily basis were being exposed to your feed as opposed to this now meaningless hits number in the feed world.

From that, we simply extended the kinds of services we offered in the analytics area around feeds to include both the number of live views; so not just you have 1,000 subscribers to your feed, but of those 1,000 subscribers to whom your feed was circulated today, 500 of them actually opened the 3rd article and looked at it.

Eric Enge: Right, the most popular content.

Dick Costolo: Right, that's exactly right. So, you can get a sense of I've got 1,000 subscribers, but of my 1,000 subscribers I am exposed to this percentage of them who are actually reading all the articles on a day to day basis. This one is the most popular, this one is the most frequently clicked, etc.

Eric Enge: Right. You used to refer to it as feed and distribution analytics.

Dick Costolo: That's correct, feed and distribution analytics. And again, if you think about one of the things Google has been very, very good at, and spending a lot of time on over the last couple of years are analytic services, right? So, it only makes sense to start to combine those things together and provide publishers with a more 360 degree view of their audience, right?

Here is my audience on my site; here is my audience in distribution, here is what the overlap is etc., etc., so those are all kinds of things that we need to be working on and we are.

Eric Enge: Right. So, one of the things of course is you show what readers people are using; also and I am just curious about that one. I mean it's always kind of interesting to look at, but is there a way that a publisher might use that to enhance their service in some way?

Dick Costolo: I don't think that's necessarily the case; it maybe. It's more of an interesting statistic, but I think that most of the modern readers now, all kind of have the same general capabilities. So, it's not necessarily the case that you need to do anything to target your feeds specifically toward the more popular readers.

Now, one thing some publishers do is they'll also go and look at what the more popular readers are. So, Google Reader is popular, or Newsgator is popular etc., etc., and add a button for adding your feed to Newsgator or Google Reader on their blog. But, with the way that the latest versions of the browsers work now, when you actually click on a subscribe button on a site, we are smart enough to know that the last time this person subscribed to a feed they used Newsgator or they used Google Reader, so we are going to put it on that this time.

The person is probably a Google Reader person, or a Newsgator person, or whatever, so we are going to present that this time as the default option and they could change it if they want to, but you don't have to kind of go through all the rigamarole of picking which reader you are using every time. The latest versions of browsers and the latest versions of our tools make that a lot easier. So, there is less need to go digging into what the top ten aggregators are, and changing anything about your content or your site based on that.

Eric Enge: Right. One thing I usually use it for, is to look at the feeds we have and get a sense of what percentage of my readers use Google Reader.

Then, I can into Google Reader, and subscribe to a competitive feed, and get a rough idea of what their readership is.

Dick Costolo: Oh, I see, yes; sure. Because, that says how many people are subscribed to it.

Eric Enge: Yeah. So, Bloglines or Google Reader will tell you how many people are subscribing to it using their reader. Then you can extrapolate, because you can get an estimate as to market share basically, right?

Dick Costolo: Sure. Now, one of the interesting things about that is that it's not 100% consistent from feed-to-feed, right? Obviously internationally, but also within individual geographies certain types of feeds are more popular in certain kinds of aggregators then others.

Eric Enge: Right. Perhaps the Google audience tends to be a bit more technically oriented than another audience, and hence they are more likely to be subscribing to those kinds of blogs.

Dick Costolo: It could be. It's certainly the case that things like videocast and podcast have completely different subscriber demographics as you expect much more iTunes, must less traditional readers etc.

Eric Enge: Right. Do you see new types of analytics emerging, and new things that people are going to want to see that will actually be implemented at some point in the future?

Dick Costolo: What people want is more analytics integration, and I think people always want that; and I think that's a perfectly reasonable thing to want and hope for. Publishers love analytics for all sorts of obvious reasons. They want to see where the growth is; what's popular, what's interesting, and what's working, what's not. So, the more integration we can provide between the site, the feed, and other kinds of analytics tools we provide the better.

That will continue to be a focal point for us particularly as we get integration completed here, and then I think we will just see what kinds of opportunities unfold as we get in it, and as we see what people want. I think one of the interesting things about analytics is, the more you see, the more questions you have.

Once we do get the first integration steps complete, that will cause publishers to have a more questions about the next things they want, and that will probably paint the roadmap for us.

Eric Enge: Right. So, we can anticipate an increasing level of integration between Google Analytics and FeedBurner analytics.

Dick Costolo: Not just Google Analytics and FeedBurner, but Webmaster Tools as well, right?

Eric Enge: Sure.

Dick Costolo: Google Webmaster Tools is a suite of tools that tells you about how Google sees your site. We've also got troubleshooting statistics within FeedBurner that are a great match for those in Webmaster Tools as well. So, it's not just integration between two specific pieces; that's integration between lots of different kinds of pieces.

Publishers can see what they want; the webmasters can see what they want, and they don't even have to go to three different places. I think there is a bunch of different kinds of integration points that we'll see; and once those integration points happen, we'll start to see more and more questions. It's similar to the advertising side, the more advertising offering you have, the more questions people have about them.

Eric Enge: If you had to identify two or three top trends or changes in RSS or content syndication in the next year or two, what would you talk about?

Dick Costolo: One is the explosion of feeds across the variety of personas that people are experiencing online now. It's not just a blog anymore; it's the blog feed, it's the photo feed, it's the Friend Feed, the Twitter feed, the Face Book feed, etc. This explosion of feeds will lead to some sort of trend around re-syndication or re-aggregation, and that will be interesting to see. I don't know what it will look like, but it's pretty clear that people want it; and someone will provide tools or services in that area.

Eric Enge: Any other major trends?

Dick Costolo: Monetization of feeds has been sort of stable for the last two years. Once we get integration complete here there is going to be a lot more opportunity on that front for the publishers; publishers who want to take advantage of it. So, I think again this explosion of persona feeds will require some re-aggregation or re-syndication and then monetization opportunities, probably similar to everything else people are experiencing with social media.

Eric Enge: Any sense as to when the integration completion will complete?

Dick Costolo: We are wrapping up now. We are almost done here with the first phase of it; what we will start doing then is very carefully rolling some people into the integrated version of a service making sure it's all working according to plan and just as easy as the legacy service.

Once we do that, we will get everybody else to support it. Engineers always hate it when you say dates on the phone; so I won't get in trouble with my engineers. But, we are definitely closing in on it.

Eric Enge: Right, excellent. Thanks a lot Dick!

Dick Costolo: Super, I enjoyed it.

Have comments or want to discuss? You can comment on the Dick Costolo interview here.

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About the Author

Eric Enge is the Founder and President of Stone Temple Consulting (STC). STC offers Internet marketing optimization services, including SEO, Social Media and PPC optimization, and its web site can be found at: http://www.stonetemple.com.

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