The Changing Face of RSS

This weekend saw dueling announcements that painted a sharp contrast about the future of RSS. First, the big news from a slow weekend. was that Ask.com is shuttering it’s Bloglines Reader. Once one of the most popular RSS readers, Bloglines has maintained a strong following but has largely taken a backseat to Google Reader as a Web-based RSS reader.

Still, its closure comes as surprise and is being viewed as a sign that RSS is about to meet its maker.

However, a separate announcement came from Automattic, which has added a new RSS-based subscription feature to its WordPress.com offering. The idea is to make RSS usable and approachable to people who aren’t as tech savvy as your average RSS user and compile RSS feeds into a Facebook-like news stream.

What does this mean for RSS as one Internet company enters the field and another makes an exit? There’s no clear answers but one thing is certain, content creators need to pay close attention.

A Changing Relationship

Bloggers and other content creators have always had a love/hate relationship with RSS. On one hand, it has been a powerful and compelling way to engage and stay in contact with readers. Everything from RSS readers to RSS-to-email services have kept readers connected and reading more content.

On the other hand, RSS has been accused by some of robbing sites of page views, a notion FeedBurner disputes, and has opened the door to RSS scraping by spam bloggers and other garbage sites.

However, RSS adoption never really took off. In 2008, RSS adoption was at 11% and it largely peaked there. The years since have seen widespread growth in social networking, including Facebook and Twitter, but limited growth in RSS use.

This is a story I’ve seen first hand here at Plagiarism Today. My RSS subscribers, according to FeedBurner, have been flat (though FeedBurner stats have not been very reliable) even though I’ve seen growth in pageviews, Facebook and Twitter subscriptions. Though RSS is still a major way to access this site’s content, now more people view the site on Twitter and Facebook than RSS.

Simply put, mainstream users never really understood or made use of RSS, finding it too complicated and hating having a “second inbox”. RSS may never be widely used for its intended function, but that also doesn’t mean that it’s dead, contrary to what TechCrunch may say, just an indication that the function is changing.

Changing Faces

RSS may not be a destination much longer but it is still an important tool and an important means. Feeding Facebook, Twitter and other social news sites requires a standard to distribute the content, something RSS provides.

But as RSS’ relationship with readers change, so it will with content creators. Slowly, it’s possible content creators will abandon public RSS feeds and favor private ones they feed to their various channels. The idea of a partial feed will become less egregious as RSS’s function is pushed to fit into 140 characters and other short status updates.

Where once RSS was viewed as the ideal way to follow a site, it is slowly becoming the way to feed the new ideal ways to follow a site. In short, it’s the tool that enables realtime, not the destination for it.

Looking Forward

Many creators, myself included, have been downplaying RSS on their sites for some time but the question is what will you be doing? Will you be looking at making your RSS private, switching to a truncated feed or staying the same? Will you be shifting focus to other methods for readers to connect or continue with RSS?

I don’t have any firm answers for myself, only what I’ve done in the past (almost without realizing what I was doing), but I can’t see myself ditching RSS completely or truncating my feed. There are still several thousand who read this site via RSS and I have no desire to cut them off or impede their reading.

But it is clear RSS won’t be the way of the future for me, or likely many other bloggers, at least not as a destination.

18 comments
Alex
Alex

It's important to recognize that any measure of RSS usage will depend on what it means to *use* RSS. When readers come to content from Facebook, Twitter, or some platform of the future RSS or Atom feeds may be involved at several stages along the way - between the blog and those sites, and between those sites and the applications used to access them. And the experience of RSS continues to have a strong influence on the design of all sorts of APIs and will for a long time to come. So even if no humans are using classic RSS readers, we are a long way off from RSS meeting its maker.

Alex
Alex

It's important to recognize that any measure of RSS usage will depend on what it means to *use* RSS. When readers come to content from Facebook, Twitter, or some platform of the future RSS or Atom feeds may be involved at several stages along the way - between the blog and those sites, and between those sites and the applications used to access them. And the experience of RSS continues to have a strong influence on the design of all sorts of APIs and will for a long time to come. So even if no humans are using classic RSS readers, we are a long way off from RSS meeting its maker.

Jonathan Bailey
Jonathan Bailey

I don't have much to add but I think you've got the right idea. I have no plans to turn away RSS readers but definitely realize that there will be a lot more diversity in how people read my (and other) sites...

Jonathan Bailey
Jonathan Bailey

I don't have much to add but I think you've got the right idea. I have no plans to turn away RSS readers but definitely realize that there will be a lot more diversity in how people read my (and other) sites...

Jonathan Bailey
Jonathan Bailey

The thing about RSS is that there seems to be a very hardcore userbase and they seem to have solidified around Google Reader (which explains its continued growth even as RSS seems to have plateaued).

I don't think RSS is something my dad or my officemates will ever really use, but I do (though not as much as I once did) and so do many, if not most, of the readers here at PT.

There's a hardcore following that will continue to use RSS and we are among it but it seems most likely it'll get most of its mileage elsewhere moving forward.

Jonathan Bailey
Jonathan Bailey

The thing about RSS is that there seems to be a very hardcore userbase and they seem to have solidified around Google Reader (which explains its continued growth even as RSS seems to have plateaued).
I don't think RSS is something my dad or my officemates will ever really use, but I do (though not as much as I once did) and so do many, if not most, of the readers here at PT.
There's a hardcore following that will continue to use RSS and we are among it but it seems most likely it'll get most of its mileage elsewhere moving forward.

Jonathan Bailey
Jonathan Bailey

The thing about RSS is that there seems to be a very hardcore userbase and they seem to have solidified around Google Reader (which explains its continued growth even as RSS seems to have plateaued). I don't think RSS is something my dad or my officemates will ever really use, but I do (though not as much as I once did) and so do many, if not most, of the readers here at PT. There's a hardcore following that will continue to use RSS and we are among it but it seems most likely it'll get most of its mileage elsewhere moving forward.

iFroggy
iFroggy

I use Bloglines and this is how I found out about it (haven't visited Bloglines this weekend as I've been away). Guess I need a new RSS reader!

iFroggy
iFroggy

I use Bloglines and this is how I found out about it (haven't visited Bloglines this weekend as I've been away). Guess I need a new RSS reader!

cool
cool

I switched from Bloglines to Google Reader quite awhile back because the former seemed to have a lot of technical problems and I liked Reader's sharing capabilities.

Despite a lack of mainstream adoption, I still find RSS to be very useful and continue to educate clients about ways to use Google Reader to not only keep track of their blog subscriptions but also as a tool to find content to share via social media, and to monitor brand and product mentions. Usually once I turn them onto Google Reader they wonder how they coped without it.

I use Google Reader to find the posts I share to Twitter and my Facebook business page. I also use Google Reader's sharing mechanism to share with my GR sharing page. This feed then also posts to a page on my site called What I've Been Reading in the Blogosphere and also posts those links to my personal Facebook page. (I'm using Yahoo pipes to merge that feed with a feed from Delicious which then gets posted to Facebook via Ping.fm.)

On the other end of things I use RSS feeds to pull headlines and updates into My Social Media Profiles, where I describe some of the services I use, and pull in recent updates below the description. Naturally I don't advocate using RSS to scrape and re-post full articles, but I do use it actively both to consume and post content in various spaces.

As far as RSS robbing page views, I don't worry about that too much. I've set up Feedburner to work with Google Analytics so my feed shows up in my referring traffic data. Only a fraction of people are reading via the feed, but I still like that it is available for those who use it. (Even at the risk of certain content scrapers who I know are grabbing my content...a pox upon them, bah!)

While I found this post today via Twitter (I have you in my mktg column on Tweetdeck), I am also subscribed to your blog, so if I'd missed the Tweet I would have seen it later this afternoon in Google Reader.

Christopher Gronlund
Christopher Gronlund

Like you, I see most people coming to my blog through Twitter and Facebook. Of those receiving my content through my RSS feed, a large percentage have chosen to receive posts at The Juggling Writer through e-mail.

The people reading my blog through a blog reader, I imagine, are a smaller percentage of people with a better understanding of the Web and techie things.

What I've seen in the growth of my blog is the importance of connection and interaction. Most of the people who come to my blog either come through a Google search and typically bounce away, or they have been there hundreds of times.

I know I have some loyal followers viewing my blog through a blog reader, but more people understand social networking than RSS feeds. I've seen a growth in people visiting my blog through Twitter, Facebook, forums, and other places where there's direct interaction.

I'll still keep my RSS feed open; they still work great. Hell, I would have possibly missed this post had it not been for a blog reader :)

Jonathan Bailey
Jonathan Bailey

Ummm. Surprise!? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news....

Jonathan Bailey
Jonathan Bailey

Ummm. Surprise!? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news....

iFroggy
iFroggy

Haha. No worries. :)

iFroggy
iFroggy

Haha. No worries. :)

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