The Good, Bad and Ugly of RSS
Tuesday, September 11, 2007 ~ 17 Comments
I think it’s safe to say that I’m almost completely reliant on my RSS feeds to ‘manage’ the websites I visit. These days I rarely start any form of “surfing” by visiting a website, instead I head to Google Reader to see what’s new in my feeds.
Aside 1: A quick plug for the FaviconizeTab extension for Firefox which allows you to have the tabs which contain specific websites resized down to just the icon. Handy as you can then leave Google Mail and Google Reader open in two small tabs, leaving plenty of room in the tab area.
Whilst I’m fearful of projecting my own thoughts about my growing adoption of RSS and call it a “trend”, it certainly seems like I’m not the only person who is relying more and more on their RSS reader to help filter and streamline their online time. But let’s not get carried away here, a newsreader can’t account for the amount of time you spend giggling like a loon over LOLcats.
Aside 2: As yet, I’m unaware of the collective term for the applications used to monitor and view RSS feeds. Newsreader? Feed reader? RSS reader?
The case for syndicating your content, in a really simple way (Really Simple Syndication), seems like a bit of a no-brainer. Offering your content to your readers, in a way that makes it easier for them to handle is almost an expected courtesy these days. As I’ve finally made the leap to RSS-centric content consumption, I now find myself discounting any websites that don’t have an RSS feed. If you are hiding or blocking your content, forcing me to visit your website then, sorry but it is unlikely that I’ll visit very often.
And that brings us nicely to the whole “full or partial” debate, and here I have to agree with Mr. Scoble who says (of people who offer partial feeds)
“I notice I read a lot fewer of their items than I read items from … [other sites] … who offer full text feeds.”
Full feeds allow me to digest a post or article in-depth without spending time nipping between websites, and with a requirement for me to invest some of my time if I want to add to the discussion then, implicitly, any comment I leave is more likely to add value, than being just a “Me too!” (or “First” which seems to be a fad at the moment, for why I have no idea).
Of course, the downside of offering all of your content in such a manner is that, as ever, nefarious types may take your lovingly created content, and re-publish it without attribution and possibly even claim it as their own. I’ve long since made my peace on that front, largely because I ‘give’ away my (obviously high quality and high value) content here for free and, frankly, I’ve got better things to do with my time than monitoring and confirming who is taking my RSS feed. Naturally that doesn’t apply to everyone, and some of my regular reads only publish partial feeds and have their own reasons for doing so.
On the flip side, partial feeds do offer advantages as they allow the reader to skim down a shortened list of posts, with less content to consume, and so should simplify the choice of whether or not to visit a site to read a complete post.
However, if that is your stance then I’d suggest you might want to consider how you use your own set of feeds. Most feed readers have the option to ‘Go to next…’, functionality that allows me not to care if your post is 5000 words or 50, it’s easy to skip it if I don’t want to read it. With this model I’m LESS likely to visit your site.
If I have a list of partial feeds on a page, I will scan down the titles and the opening lines of content on the page and, if I want to read the full post, I need to click to go to the site.
But if I have a list of full feeds, I will still scan down the titles and the opening lines of content but if I choose to keep reading, then there is no further action needed. No switching of context and view, I just keep on reading. Simple.
And yes, the presumption is that every post is likely to be as interesting as the next, after I’m sure you carefully selected the feeds to which you subscribe. I know I did, and I have impeccable taste.
Regardless of which type of RSS feed you offer, full or partial, the fact that you offer an RSS feed at all is likely to directly impact on your website stats. Diamond Geezer touched on this recently.
Presuming you care about stats, and let’s face it most of us do check them far too often to be healthy, there is something about checking all those weird referrers, the tangible evidence that real people are actually visiting. These days, ultimately, what you need to be tracking isn’t visits but ‘reads’. How many times has post X been read in the past week, regardless of whether it was via RSS, or on the website itself.. and herein lies a small quandary, is that even technically possible? If I visit your blog, read a post but don’t comment on it, how do you know I read it?
This is another bad side of RSS, you lose visibility of how, why, and where your content is being accessed. Lost in the ether. “Much too much to read, far too little time.” said Diamond Geezer, and I think that that, again, suggest that full feeds are better than partial feeds, the competition is high, so why place another barrier in the road?
Using RSS gives you the opportunity to monitor far more websites than you can read, and if you are happy to ignore the number of unread items then the sky really is the limit. Personally I’ve stopped looking for additional links to other blogs on any of the websites that I end up visiting. “The blogroll is an endangered species” I’ve heard but, in a neat twist, I am starting to see more examples of the “live” blogroll, powered by, you guessed it, RSS Feeds. Rather than a static list of links, you can have snippets of latest content from your favourite reads appear in your sidebar. This is, of course, until the backlash really kicks in and blogrolls see a surge in usage.
However I think that change in the use of blogrolls is telling, after all, how many of you still check them on other people’s sites? How many of you have even noticed that I removed mine a week ago? Perhaps the size of blogrolls was an issue, and RSS combates that by offering a guarantee that you can check for updated content.
Or maybe there is more to it than that?
How many of you will visit a link in a post, but not randomly choose from a list of links in a blogroll? My guess is that including a link in a post is an additional level of endorsement and, as interactions on the web continue to evolve and gain in complexity (in the social scheme of things, what price a link these days?) then what we are really experiencing is a change in the level of endorsement. Linking to something from a post suggests higher endorsement than linking to something continuously in a sidebar. Linking to something from a post presumes that link is current, and the same isn’t always true for a blogroll. As RSS offers us the ability to monitor hundreds of websites, then we already have a reliable way of knowing when someone updates their site. So why bother with a blogroll at all?
By adapting how we process both the consumption and locating of content, we can really start to use RSS to our own advantage. As a consumer I have the power to monitor a multitude of sources, cherry-picking what I want to read. Any barrier to that usage, anything that blocks my reading process is removed by switching my attention elsewhere. Yeah, it’s not nice but it’s true. As ever there are always exceptions to the rule (around 5 of them off the top of my head).
RSS is good, it puts much more power into the hands of the consumer. Yet that shift of power isn’t without pain, and the downsides are evident.
Despite all that I’m spending less and less time visiting websites, and more and more time consuming content from RSS feeds. If the content is good I will invest some of my time, that which is most precious to me, in providing some form of feedback to the creator. And the real downside is that even then my contributions are slowly petering out. Information overload means we spend most of our online time in a state of distracted flux and RSS can either help you reduce the stresses of being a “web citizen” or add to your pain.
I’ve yet to find the balance.