When I started Plagiarism Today in 2005, RSS was a fairly mundane technology that was growing rapidly in popularity. The most common use of it was RSS subscription services, such as Google Reader and Bloglines. It was, basically, a way for people to get your latest content in a place that was convenient for them and to ensure they got your updates regularly.
However, times have definitely changed. Last year I wrote about how the role of RSS was changing. By most accounts, the use of feed readers peaked in 2008 at about 11% and has been declining since. The broader public found feed readers too complicated and not useful enough for regular consumption.
But at the same time, RSS usage has grown in very big ways. Currently millios of people are reading RSS feeds without realizing they’re doing so. Countless Twitter accounts and Facebook Pages are being fed via RSS and are serving them much like a feed reader was supposed to, sending people near-instant updates and letting them read all of their content in one place.
This shift is changing what RSS is and means, turning it away from being a means to read a site and into the engine that enables sharing and content discovery.
This, in turn, is impacting how webmasters and bloggers use and interact with RSS and is also shifting the ways in content creators protect their works and how users interact with it.
Here are just five examples of how that is happening right now.
1. Fewer, If Any, RSS Buttons
If you go to TechCrunch, you won’t find a single RSS button on their home page. Since their recent redesign, the RSS link has been moved to the footer, three little letters at the bottom of their site.
Meanwhile, their Facebook “Like” box is prominently displayed in their sidebar and Twitter sharing buttons line the entire site. Webmasters have been steadily downplaying RSS subscription in favor of social networking.
RSS just doesn’t have the “cool” factor any more and it’s been moved to a behind-the-scenes player in content distribution. This is why many webmasters, myself included, have been slowly scaling back RSS subscription efforts in lieu of other, more popular alternatives.
2. Better RSS Control
RSS by its nature has historically been completely open. Anyone could be accessing it. A visitor to an RSS feed could be single user looking at it in Outlook or it could be Google Reader preparing to send it to hundreds of subscribers. This opened the door for scrapers and others who wanted to misuse the content in the feed as everyone had to be let in.
However, the number of distribution channels is dropping. This makes it possible to limit who has access to the feed and only let in permitted clients. Though you’ve always been able to block scrapers, this would change the system from one where everyone has access until they’re booted to one where only the permitted users are let in at all.
This could stop scrapers before they start, or at least force them to pull from other channels to get the content.
3. Greater Tolerance of Truncated Feeds
Five years ago, having a truncated feed was a sure-fire way to turn away potential subscribers. The issue was such a hot-button topic that a petition was circulated around against partial feeds and it gained a bit of traction.
However, with the new subscription channels, people are more used to getting a preview and clicking through. They are more about content discovery than content consumption, making partial feeds roughly as useful as full ones.
4. Loss of Platform Control
While the ability to control access and the ability to greater openness to the use of partial feeds gives webmasters more control, it also comes with drawbacks.
Previously, if a single RSS reader or site using your content did something you didn’t like you could always block them, file a takedown notice or take other action. However, if Facebook decides to display RSS feeds in an in appropriate or controversial way, there’s not much one can do as that is a large percentage of the audience.
The good news is that Facebook and Twitter both don’t integrate RSS directly and, instead, use third party apps to do it. However, that’s no guarantee in and of itself as decisions by these two can impact and even cut off how RSS flows through their systems.
In short, even though you can always switch apps, Facebook and Twitter are still very much in control.
5. Losing Sight of What RSS Even Is
With RSS disappearing from sites and fewer bloggers even using them, it seems likely that even fewer people will be aware of RSS in just a few years’ time. Even those who know of it and use it somewhat now will, with time, probably forget about it as both the name RSS as well as the famous icons will be all-but-meaningless to end users.
This also means that fewer webmasters will be thinking about it and fewer will be weighing the issues and decisions that come with having an RSS feed on your site.
This may, in turn, open the doors for others with less-than-pure intentions to exploit the naivete of webmasters, who are unaware of how they are gaining access to their site’s content.
All in all, the changing role of RSS is a mixed bag for webmasters and content creators. While it will make it easier to block and reduce the impact of traditional scrapers, the loss of control over the platform and lack of front-of-mind understanding of what RSS is and how it works still opens up some serious vulnerabilities.
However, this is a transition that is happening slowly and will continue to do so for some time. Most likely we still have several more transition years before we truly reach the point with RSS where it is meaningless to users.
That being said, with so many major blog eschewing or downplaying RSS, it may be that the transition is happening much faster than once thought possible. It may simply be that the simplicity and large presence of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks are just overpowering to the traditional RSS model and we may be mourning RSS’ demise as a destination sooner rather than later.
Either way though, RSS will live on, behind the scenes, driving social media and marketing for content creators of all stripes. That much is definitely certain.