How to Avoid Podcast Hijacking
[Editor's note: The podkeyword.com site this was originally written about in 2005 no longer exists in the form described in the article, but the lesson is still a valuable one.]
A story circulating every major tech news outlet accuses podkeyword.com of hijacking the RSS feed for Vegan.com's Erik's Diner podcast. At some point, both Yahoo and Apple's podcast directories listed the Erik's Diner podcast referencing an RSS feed originating at podkeyword.com instead of the actual RSS feed hosted by Vegan.com. While this seems like something that could have been easily nipped in the bud, say several months ago when the iTunes podcast service first launched, it wasn't and now that Vegan.com is trying to re-route traffic from podkeyword.com to their own RSS feed, the Erik's Diner podcast is taking a major dip in subscribers.
This story is getting lots of press, because it's billed as an exploitation of new technology and because Erik Marcus, the guy behind the podcast, got a lawyer involved in the discussion with podkeyword.com. While I don't pretend to know the full story of what's going on between podkeyword.com and Erik Marcus of Vegan.com, I do know that most of what's taken place here is completely avoidable. There's only one way to make sure you never lose control of your feed and that's to never rescind that control in the first place. Here are some things you should do to make sure you own your traffic.
Retain Control of Your Feed
As someone who entered the online world through email publishing, I'm well aware of the importance of maintain control of your subscriber relationship. Handing off your subscribers to a third party, without having a backup plan means potential losing your subscribers. Lose your subscribers and you've effectively put yourself out of business. That's what backup strategies and contingency plans are all about. If you put the control over your RSS feed in the hands of a third party, you have no control over that feed if it goes down, if the company goes out of business or if that company decides to do something you don't like with your feed.
So what about using a service like FeedBurner to get statistics and manage your feed? I trust the people at FeedBurner. I've met a couple of them and chatted with them on the phone. But what if they get bought by someone I don't trust? Or what if FeedBurner goes out of business? I use FeedBurner for things like statistics, but I still publish my own URL as the source feed. By doing a redirect to FeedBurner, I can still promote a feed I control, while retaining all the advantages of using FeedBurner's service.
Monitor Major Podcasting Directories
I should title this section, 'Pay Attention, Stupid.' The nature of RSS is it's syndicated. This means anyone can pick up your feed and aggregate it into something else. Places like Bloglines make it easy for me to publish an OPML file of everything I subscribe to. In theory, a directory could republish my OPML file as part of their listing, regardless of whether my feed list contains original feeds or feeds I picked up elsewhere. I don't know how the podkeyword.com alternate feed for Erik's Diner got listed in iTunes and Yahoo, but it was either brought in as part of the initial directory launch or someone purposely submitted the podkeyword.com feed.
If your podcast is listed in one of the major directories, take the time to verify the source feed the directory references. When you submit your feed to a new directory, submit YOUR feed. Don't submit a proxy feed like FeedBurner, or podkeyword.com or any other alternate feed. The feed you submit to directories should be YourDomain.com/YourFeed.xml. Use redirects if you need the advantages of other services. Check the major directories to make sure they are using the correct URL. If they have an incorrect URL, use the appropriate feedback forum to correct the problem immediately. Don't wait.
Know Your Podcast Traffic
Study Your Server Logs. If you don't have server logs because you are using a free service, consider switching to a hosting service with statistics. Look at where your top referrers come from. Look at how many times your feed was requested (feed requests will be skewed if you redirect, which is okay) If there are sites bringing lots of traffic you've never heard of, investigate to make sure the traffic is something you want. In most cases, any traffic is good, but not if it eliminates fundamental control of your podcast.
If you do the first three things I discuss, the likelihood of your podcast feed getting hijacked drops tremendously. People will use your podcast for things you either never wanted them to or you never thought of. There's no way to plan for every contingency. With a little due diligence you can make sure you retain control of your podcast and never run into a situation where someone is hijacking your podcast RSS feed.