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Thursday, September 08, 2005

For the uninitiated (or What the hell is RSS)


RSS is Really Simple Syndication, a name for content feeds to which Internet uses can subscribe through various content "readers" and track updates at a wide range of Web sites.
Some in the industry are complaining that Microsoft and Google should exert their considerable influence elsewhere and leave this technology alone. The hue and cry, to some degree, is understandable, given concerns about the ever-expanding influence of these two companies.
Yet, the complaints are short-sighted, given the positive impact these moves can have.
Proponents can talk all they want about the benefits and value of RSS, yet the technology to many, many Web users remains mysterious and dense (and that's why I felt the need to define it above); subscription pages have to spell out in excruciating detail what RSS is, how it works, how to subscribe, and so on. One of the reasons RSS isn't used more widely -- an assertion based on our internal knowledge of the clicks we get from RSS feeds -- is that it's currently too difficult to figure out and too difficult to use.
Indeed, market researcher Nielsen/NetRatings found in a survey of blog readers released this week that 66% either didn't understand RSS or had never heard of it. An additional 23% understood the technology, but didn't use it.
To the nonfaithful, it's all but impossible to look at icons or links that say "RSS" or "XML" and have any clue what a given Web site is offering them. I suspect strongly that if InformationWeek, for example, were to buck the common industry practice of posting icons that say "RSS" or "XML" and instead used "Our content feeds" or "Subscribe to our content," our readers would be much more likely to at least check out our page that explains our feeds. As Web publishers, we should use concrete, simple terms to explain our services to readers. Then, in turn, readers would be less intimidated by an RSS sign-up page and more likely to try out our feeds.
The more simple RSS is -- right down to giving it a label that means something to all manner of Web users -- the more its value can be unlocked for a broader audience. In the end, the RSS die-hards may not like seeing this technology morph into something with a different name, but even they should recognize it would lead to more widespread acceptance.

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