16 comments | Posted: 22 November 05 in General, by Matt Heerema
How many of you are reading this in a RSS aggregator of some sort? Come on, raise your hands. Yeah, me too. That is because we are geeks, right? I bet you even have your own blog with an RSS feed.
I was pondering recently how well RSS has been spreading. Are people actually using it? Last year, Scobel and a few others talked about the slow adoption of RSS, even among geeks. Roy Osherove even came up with a few reasons why “Really Simple Syndication” is not really that simple. Essentially, it involves a somewhat steep learning curve. Here are the steps that he says you need to take to use RSS feeds:
- Find out what RSS means
- Find a news reader
- Download and install it
- Find sites that give out RSS feeds
- Subscribe to a Feed (added by me)
What Does RSS Mean?
I cannot recount how many times I have been asked to explain what RSS is. It is not easy to do, even with savvy Internet users. Here is roughly the best I have been able to do:
RSS stands for Rich Site Summary, sometimes called Real Simple Syndication. It is a method of getting the word out about your website by creating what is essentially a “What’s New” list of stuff you have updated. This is called an RSS feed. Someone then uses something called a News Aggregator to “subscribe” to that feed. The aggregator service tells you every time that site is updated, kind of like a news ticker on a TV screen.
This usually brings on a look of extreme confusion and frustration, which can (sometimes) be remedied by additional clarification. This can be difficult, as even geeks such as myself have a hard time explaining it. If any of you out there have found a more simple explanation, please let me know.
Think about how we present feeds on our sites. There are tiny orange buttons that say RSS, XML, Syndicate or Subscribe. When you click on these buttons, which an uninformed user would probably do out of sheer curiosity, you get a raw XML file. It is meaningless to the average person, unless you applied some XSL transforms to your feed. Don’t worry, I haven’t done that either.
A recent study done by Yahoo shows that only 12% of Internet users are actually aware of what these little orange buttons actually mean. That is, only 12% of Internet users are actually aware RSS exists, which does not mean that every one of them makes use of it.
- Read the PDF here: RSS – Crossing Into the Mainstream (508kb).
Aggregators and Feeds
Another usability hurdle, and a very large one at that, is that once someone is really convinced that RSS is a useful thing, he or she must go to great lengths to locate, download, install, and configure the aggregator program. Or, in the case of online aggregator services, sign up for an account.
Most major sites, nearly all blogs, and every worthwhile content-driven site have RSS, but subscribing to these feeds can be a headache. In short, there is no one-click method, though the
feed: protocol shows some promise. The process usually involves clicking on the little orange RSS button, wincing at the raw XML file, copying the URL from the address bar, and pasting it into your feed aggregator program, then clicking Subscribe. This can be a speedbump, or worse – a complete roadblock to usability.
Bloglines, my aggregator of choice, has a fairly nice “Subscribe with Bloglines” bookmarklet. Yahoo Toolbar also has some pretty good options for subscribing to a feed. Firefox and Safari have implemented various RSS one-click subscription options. Mozilla has also integrated RSS subscription into its email client Thunderbird.
These localized lists are not very useful when using multiple computers. While these are all steps forward towards one-click usefulness for RSS feeds, but more needs to be done. Perhaps this is why of the 12% of Internet users that are even aware of RSS feeds, only 4% of users actually use them.
What to Do?
Limited adoption of such a brilliant technology is shocking to me. The ability to have the news come to you, rather than having to go get it changed my life. Okay, that was a little melodramatic. We should not despair that everyone is not using RSS yet. It is catching on.
The 4% number is a little misleading. The statistic is that 4% of Internet users knowingly use RSS. Another statistic that we should be aware of is that at least 27% of Internet users consume RSS syndicated content. These show up on personalized start pages, news sites aggregating other news sources, etc.
Increasing the consumption of RSS content will require a three-pronged attack. Firstly, we will need to educate and raise awareness about the technology. We will need to learn to explain to someone very simply what RSS and how it can benefit them. Secondly, we will have to make our RSS feeds easier to use. We will need to figure out another means of linking to our RSS feeds besides showing people our naked XML files.
Lastly, those of us who do know how to use RSS need to continue to make use of it in our projects. We should be implementing small-scale aggregators into our sites to show relevant blog postings and news topics. Showing our flickr photos via RSS, or using Del.icio.us links on our personal sites will also help raise awareness.
Let us not give up yet. This is a robust technology that is still in its infancy, but has great potential beyond just displaying recent blog topics. Podcasting seems to be taking off, with the help of RSS. We should learn to utilize it in a less geeky and more idiot-proof way. To learn more abou the concept of appealing to the average person, I suggest checking out the book Don’t Make Me Think.
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