RSS Simplified

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:

  1. Find out what RSS means
  2. Find a news reader
  3. Download and install it
  4. Find sites that give out RSS feeds
  5. 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.

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 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.

Discuss This Topic

  1. 1 Hutch

    Google Reader, my friend. Google Reader. Still has some kinks to work out, but brother, having the Aggregator online, so I can check it at home and at work, is a thing of beauty.

  2. 2 Nathan Smith

    Hutch: I’ve heard Google Reader is pretty good, but that it had some issues to be worked out. I’m not sure what those are exactly, but maybe they’ve been taken care of. How does it differ / compare to Bloglines – no contest?

  3. 3 Yannick

    Nice article Matt.

    Firstly, we will need to educate and raise awareness about the technology.

    I think your article does exactly that. Another way to go about it is to put a little “What is RSS?” link next to our feed link. Biblegateway and I am sure other websites out there provide a link that explains what RSS is and how to go about getting started. (on Biblegateway click on the link to what is RSS right under the verse of the day for an example).

    As you rightly said it will take time, but I am sure that more and more people will start using it as time goes on.

    Oh and just like you Matt, I use Bloglines. It’s suits me, since I like to be able to access my feeds from any computer.

  4. 4 Wesley Walser

    I also think that feed pages like Signal vs. Noise’s do a great job of explaining things. I have never looked into how to create that type of page for my RSS feed. Anyone got any useful links?

  5. 5 Boyink

    Here’s an idea, interesting from a tech. perspective but not sure if it helps the explaination of RSS:

    CSS for RSS

  6. 6 Chris

    I wrote a little explanation here ( for people using my blogging software, but met the same problem as most people – dow do you explain something whose very nature changing all the time? Check out the evolution of RSS thing here ( and you’ll see why all these user guides to RSS may all need to be rewritten.

    It’s an exciting, but confusing, time.

  7. 7 Mark Priestap

    Apparently RSS syndication will be built right into MS Vista. I’m very curious as to how that’s going to work. Maybe for PC users this will go a long way toward solving the usability problems.

    Source: Click Here

  8. 8 Nathan Smith

    Thanks for the links guys. By the way, here’s how to use Textile, Textpattern’s native syntax, to make real links…

    I’ve also fixed the ampersands so that this page still passes XHTML validation, and shortened some of the links so that they actually fit in the content area. :)

  9. 9 David Russell

    Wesley: SvN uses the Feedburner service to render the XML into the format you see when you load the feed in a browser window. When the same link is viewed in an RSS reader, it renders accordingly.

    I use the Feedburner quite extensively and recommend it to anyone who wishes to add a little RSS education to their feed for users who click that obscure little orange button. :) They also have many other great features including iTunes directory implementation for podcasters.

    The other, more “manual” and more customizable option that everyone else mentioned is to apply CSS or XSL to your XML file.

  10. 10 Blair Miller

    I think a huge part of the “problem” is the lack of good, easy-to-use RSS reader software on the Windows platform (the Mac is more than covered, what with NetNewsWire and NetNewsWire Lite, Vienna, and a plethora of others). Of those available, most are either for-pay, or require a (substantial) download of the .NET framework (a hurdle in and of itself), both of which are sure-to-miss combinations when you factor in the poorly designed interfaces and lack of user support mentioned in the article.

    There is light—however dim it may seem—ahead though. No matter what your opinion of Microsoft and its products, their install base is huge. As such, I think we’ll see a substantial surge in RSS usage/adoption when IE 7 comes out, as it will include the ability to neatly handle RSS feeds without extra software. In other words, when the 800lb gorilla throws its weight around, notice is bound to be taken.

  11. 11 Boyink

    I’ve been running the NewsGator RSS plugin for Outlook for quite some time…perfectly happy with it!

  12. 12 Nathan Smith

    Blair: I agree, and am not a big fan of .NET propaganda, I mean – Framework. Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of Microsoft. I am however, looking forward to the day that they start to make RSS more user-friendly in Internet Explorer though, because that means the general populace will make greater use of it.

  13. 13 Scott Aughtmon

    I use my personalized google homepage and really like it. I have put all the feeds I like on it and can scan them quickly to find what I like. I found this blog from a post on ChurchMarketingSucks on my Google homepage! :)

  14. 14 Yannick

    Cool, welcome Scott. I never knew you could do that through google. But then again I never used the personalised google homepage.

  15. 15 Paul Stamatiou

    For any one interested in a guide for setting up various RSS aggregators, look no further than my how to,

  16. 16 Nathan Smith

    Paul, thanks for that link. I’ll give it a read-through myself. By the way, I changed your URL so that it’s a read hyperlink. In Textpattern, it’s a bit different than in WordPress. There’s the syntax if you click “help” on the comment form.


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