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RSS feeds attract venture dollars

Start-up tries to work Friendster-type magic on blog feeds, with Marc Andreessen and Ron Conway as advisers. Others are emerging, too.

So many blogs, so little time--and now, so many entrepreneurs hoping to help you sort through them.

As the number of blogs, news services and other syndicated sources of online information balloons, a new crop of start-ups has emerged promising to improve the signal-to-noise ratio. And venture capitalists and veteran Internet investors Marc Andreessen and Ron Conway are right behind one of them.

Rojo Networks, a San Francisco start-up in the blog aggregation business, "is wrapping a communications capability around content consumption," said Andreessen, Web browser pioneer, Rojo investor and Opsware chairman. "And the killer app for the Internet is and always has been communication."

The boomlet in blog aggregation start-ups comes as online content increasingly is pushed to readers using protocols such as RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and Atom, which transmit fresh lists of headlines and content summaries to a browser, a Web site like Rojo or a separately downloaded application.

According to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 5 percent of Internet users in the United States used syndication technologies in 2004 to read news headlines and other content. Blog readership was up 58 percent, and more than 8 million Americans created blogs of their own.

To help negotiate the expanding online universe of syndicated content, blog aggregators abound. Hundreds of desktop software titles like FeedDemon and NetNewsWire exist. Yahoo in October revamped its My Yahoo pages using RSS as an underlying technology. The Mozilla Foundation's Firefox browser and an upcoming Netscape browser based on it have RSS capabilities as well.

Rojo--which is pronounced to rhyme with "mojo"--was founded in June 2003 in San Francisco and launched a test, invitation-only site this past spring. Now Rojo has a few thousand users and grants current consumers the ability to invite others, much the way Google grew its Gmail service last year.

In addition to angel investments by Andreessen and Conway, Rojo collected two rounds of venture funding led by TPG Ventures, a Menlo Park, Calif., VC firm affiliated with the Texas Pacific Group, a private equity investment group.

Rojo founders Chris Alden, CEO, and Kevin Burton, lead engineer, designed tools much like those that established Web sites offer to help visitors determine relevance in other contexts.

Like Google's PageRank algorithm and other search engine technologies, Rojo examines the link structure of the so-called blogosphere in order to call attention to blog items and feeds that have proved popular with other readers. Along the same lines, it follows e-commerce sites like Amazon.com in recommending related feeds.

And like social networking sites such as Friendster, Rojo narrows down the community of blog readers to those within a user-defined network of friends and associates.

"Given that there are now millions of content streams, millions of blogs, the task of reading content online has become a much more complex task than it was five years ago," Alden said. "We think there's a social aspect to content. People we know and have affinities with can be a big component of helping us discover and analyze content."

Rojo expects to make money by selling contextual advertising and will make the sales pitch that its users have highly defined interests. It may charge for some premium services and also plans to private-label its service for corporate clients.

The start-up has filed an omnibus patent application, which it declined to discuss in detail, that describes the various aspects of its service.

Bloglines, a privately held start-up in Redwood City, Calif., went online in June 2003. It claims more than 200 million blog articles in a searchable database.

"Being able to find feeds is a real challenge," said Mark Fletcher, founder and CEO of Bloglines. "It's an embarrassment of riches out there, with millions of feeds. It's the same search problem you have throughout the rest of the Internet."

Bloglines takes a different approach than Rojo in that both its network and individual feed lists are open to general inspection and don't require invitations.

"Rojo went about it the wrong way," Fletcher said. "They have a closed system. We have an open system. So instead of only sharing with just friends, I can share with the world. People love that because it yields a vibrant, open community."