Robert Beerworth Team : Web Strategy Tags : Technology Online Trends Web 2.0

The end of RSS as a consumer phenomenon; the end of the web being technical.

Robert Beerworth Team : Web Strategy Tags : Technology Online Trends Web 2.0

I am slightly nervous writing a blog claiming that RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is dead.

Plenty of people will disagree and I it surprises me the number of times I have made this point, only to find I am talking with an avid RSS user who relies on RSS in their daily lives.

Unfortunately, far more people agree with me by virtue that they do not use RSS let alone having heard of RSS; and with Google announcing the closure of Google Reader today, it is safe to bet that Google also thinks it is dead as a consumer technology.


A quick definition of RSS

RSS is a technology – based on another technology known as XML – that allows someone, through a compatible application or ‘reader’ to subscribe to automated updates from a website.

It was a central part of 'Web 2.0'.

You’ve no doubt seen the logo, whether you know what it means or not:


RSS has plenty of benefits 

The first is that the power of the subscription is in the hands of the subscriber, not the publisher.

When you subscribe to the emails of a website, they ultimately control when you get them and ultimately, when they stop sending them.

With RSS, you’re in control. Unsubscribe whenever you want.

The second is that in theory, wih RSS you receive all updates, automatically; as an article is added to a website, it is pushed to the RSS ‘feed’ and you receive it.

The third is that subscription to an RSS feed is very straightforward and for users wishing to aggregate content from many websites – such as a journalist subscribing to many websites in their field – it is a neat, tidy and automated way to have the latest news and updates right on your desktop.

Yes, RSS is a great technology.

By-the-by... a little known fact, though Wiliam - the Sydney digital agency I work for - developed a Facebook application known as 'RSS Reader for Facebook' some years back and at one stage, it was in the top five Facebook applications, even used by Obama for his first campaign and Prince, the musician.

(Long story short, we were too busy building websites to maintain it, made no money from it and so let it slide into a death of a thousand negative reviews once we stopped supporting it...)

It’s just unfortunate that we as an industry didn’t know how to sell RSS; a real reflection on the maturity of the web industry when RSS hit the mainstream say 10 years ago or so.


What about search?

Before explaining what I mean by failing to 'sell it’, it is important to note – lest so that I am not pursued by purists and search engine optimisation experts – that RSS still has a role in the web.

It lets websites talk to search engines though there are plenty of other ways for this to happen.

It allows other websites to subscribe and syndicate a website's content, something that was big at the time and remains relevant in some circumstances.

As a technology, RSS is a clean, standardised pipe into your website and your website's content and I am not suggesting that this pipe be cut-off; albeit there are plenty of other pipes and feeds users would be unaware of.


It’s just that consumers don’t understand or use the pipe

When RSS hit its strides, I felt ahead of my time talking to clients about the amazing things RSS would hold.

Clients were amazed.

Before long, client briefs mandated that any website developed must have an RSS feed. Indeed, we developed websites with lots of different RSS feeds; say for a news website, we would have a sports RSS feed, a business RSS feed and a breaking news RSS feed.

Yes, we certainly did our best to get RSS out there…

Though even at the time, I remember talking with one of my colleagues about why I didn’t think RSS would take off.

And that was because it was called RSS.

Firstly, RSS means nothing… it says nothing about what it does.

Secondly, nobody told consumers what RSS did or why they needed it; RSS was a small orange icon users didn’t click.

Thirdly, even if users did click the RSS icon, back then before web browsers and Outlook incorporated RSS readers, users would get an error or a printout of complex code in their browser.

Back then, it really did strike me that as an industry, we had failed yet again to sell a technology; we made RSS for us, not them.


We’ve grown up I think

Usability and the general maturing of the web industry means we’re much better at designing and building technologies for users.

For my mum.

A colleague wrote a great blog yesterday about how icons and symbols work in mobile website design and he made the point that we need to be careful, though make advances.

We need to respect usability, respect users and make careful, technical advances online.

Adding a button to a website that says ‘OXB’ is not something we’d do anymore; not unlike adding a button that says ‘RSS’ to a website.

I certainly sold the merits of RSS to clients and if anything else, we had to build it in to our websites for search and ‘best practice’ reasons.

If Google are dumping their support for it by dumping their RSS reader – remembering that Google purchased Feedburner, one of the largest such RSS service and advertising providers at the time for $100m – then I’m afraid the days of RSS for consumers are over.

We tried, we failed… I think we've learnt.