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Back From The Dead: How RSS Is Proving The Tech Grim Reapers Wrong
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In common usage, RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. Its original name was “rich site summary” or “RDF site summary”. You might have noticed RSS feeds on your WordPress website, or seen the RSS icon on the blogs that you visit.
RSS repackages blog post content in XML tags, and automatically posts updates on a feed. This feed is an XML document that can then be “plugged in” to an RSS reader application, so you can access all of the updates from your favorite news websites and blogs in one application.
As handy as this sounds, RSS has arguably not fulfilled its potential as a news dissemination method. And has it been described as “dead” or “dying” since 2009. But is it?
When Google discontinued its Reader product in 2013, it was a major blow for the technology. But RSS seems to be weathering the storm.
A Brief History of RSS
RSS is essentially a type of XML document. It evolved from the efforts of different companies. One was a syndication feed called scriptingNews, which was developed by Dave Winer of UserLand in 1997 for his own blog, scripting.com. Around the same tie, Netscape produced its own feed specification, which it called RSS 0.9.
In 1999, Netscape’s RSS team was abolished after it published a specification for RSS 0.91. This incorporated elements of the scriptingNews feed format. Around this time, major news websites began to implement the new RSS standard, which continued to be developed by Winer’s company, UserLand.
RSS version 1.0 followed in December 2000. UserLand had made an unsuccessful attempt to trademark RSS, and version 1.0 was created by The RSS-DEV Working Group, which did not include Winer. Development continued in parallel between the two teams; Winer released RSS 0.92 in December 2000. Neither group invented RSS officially, so neither was considered the owner.
The version we use now is RSS 2.0, which was released in September 2002 by Winer. He then gave the copyright for the specification to Harvard University in 2003.
Did Google Kill RSS?
As a news distribution method, RSS had its failings.
Clicking on a feed sometimes threw out ugly code, confusing the reader. Content formatting could be unpredictable within the feed, and the final results didn’t look great.
It was sometimes impossible to comment or contact the author, and sharing was more difficult than it should have been. Additionally, content publishers didn’t favor RSS, because it made it difficult to monetize content and encourage website visits. Content publishers need you to click on ads from time to time, and the RSS feed often doesn’t carry the most important ads.
RSS also has no useful tracking or analytics built-in. Using something like FeedBurner, you can get a vague idea of how many user agents are using the feed. But often, you can’t even tell if they’re human readers, and it’s impossible to know what the content is being used for.
Google Reader shut down in July 2013. Google retired it because it said usage was diminishing. And in turn, many commentators wrote off RSS for good. We don’t know how many people used Google Reader specifically. But around the time of Reader’s demise, Reineke Reitsma analyzed Forrester data on RSS usage. She found that:
- ~ 7% of US adults used RSS feeds in 2008
- ~ 4% of US adults used RSS feeds in 2012
That ties in with Google’s claim that RSS usage was declining.
But Google’s decision to shut down Reader was not popular with its users. A petition to save it gathered more than 150,000 signatures. And Feedly, a competitor, gained 45,000 paying subscribers in the following two years.
By this time, RSS had already been dropped or sidelined by Apple and Firefox, and the introduction of non-RSS feeds on Twitter and Facebook made RSS look even more vulnerable. When you factor in that Google was trying to get people to use Google+, the reasons for axing Reader become more complex.
Reineke Reitsma concluded her blog with a bold claim: “Looking at the trend data, it’s obvious that RSS feeds don’t have a future.” But four years on, the numbers paint a different picture.
Who’s Using RSS Now?
Today, 23 million websites currently publish RSS feeds. There’s a modest upward trend, too.
Of course, that isn’t to say that all of these RSS feeds are being utilized. But many are. And not necessarily just for newsreader usage.
RSS plays a new role in the automation of services and integrations on the web:
- Apps like Flipboard are making RSS more visually appealing for readers. It had 80 million users in 2015.
- 1.2 million people use Google News’ RSS feeds to follow stories they’re interested in.
- 780,000 people have downloaded Google’s RSS Subscription Extension for Chrome.
- Google Alerts also spits out RSS feeds based on new content that appears online.
- RSS feeds can be used in BitTorrent clients to automatically download new content as it is published.
RSS has also gained a new purpose as a trigger for Internet of Things services:
- IFTTT allows you to trigger actions when an RSS feed is updated. For example, a new feed item can trigger a tweet, send a Slack message, change your Android wallpaper, or even flash your lightbulbs.
- Zapier goes one step further, and lets you trigger multiple services each time a new feed item appears.
IFTTT is cagey about its membership numbers, but it says it has “millions” of users. And Zapier has over a million. While we don’t know how many integrations are created using RSS, billions of IoT devices and integrations are likely triggered by RSS every day.
Should You Provide an RSS Feed on Your Blog?
Yes. RSS is a valuable open standard that has found a new purpose in our connected world. You might not be able to access detailed analytics, but there are lots of other good reasons to keep it.
There’s a good chance that some of your visitors rely on RSS to read your updates. While you can replace this with an email service, not every reader will make the switch.
RSS is also a valuable way to monitor your own activity online, and keep a check on the times your name is mentioned, or your blog posts are shared on social media. You can also use it to automatically post to other sites and services. So having RSS can be beneficial for your own blog management and syndication purposes.
However, feeds can be redundant for sites that require a login, sites without a blog. If you really want to disable RSS on WordPress, there are plugins that will allow you to do this with a few clicks. Disable Feeds switches off RSS feeds and redirects users that try to access them. If you use another platform, like Blogger, there is a setting that will turn off feeds for you.
If you want to to use RSS, you will need an RSS application. These can be standalone applications, web applications, or additions to other programs. For example, you can run an RSS reader via an extension in Google Chrome. And unlike the relatively small number of web browsers, there are a large number of RSS readers.
There are a lot of RSS readers — especially those that run on desktop computers. Most of them haven’t been updated in a long time. Below is a list of some of what we think are the best RSS readers with a focus on those that include Android and iOS apps. They are all worth checking out. But remember if none of these work for you, there are others. But as always, be cautious about any application that hasn’t been updated recently. They can contain openings for hackers to break into your phone and do no end of damage, including stealing your identity.
Most of these applications have both free and paid versions. Many people can find free applications that suit their needs. But if you really get into RSS, it might be worth paying for the application.
- Feedly: this is a great application that runs on various web browsers. As such, you can have a single account on your desktop and your phone(s). The base application is free, but you may want to purchase the advanced version.
- Feedbin: this application runs as a web application. It has a lot of great features like its search capability and a highly-rated interface that allows you to categorize your feeds — something that is very helpful if you have a lot of interests. Feedbin is not free however; it costs $5 per month.
- Quiet RSS: an open-source application that runs on the major operating systems: Windows, Mac, Linux, and even OS/2. It’s easy to use. If you’ve used an e-mail client before, you’ll be right at home. You won’t be able to take it on the road with you, but it has lots to recommend it.
- Selfoss: a free and open source application, you can run it on your desktop or as an app for Android and iOS.
- Panda: this is a relatively limited application in terms of platforms. It runs as an iOS app, but not an Android app. Still, you can run it as a web app on an android phone and it works as a Chrome extension. Beyond that, it has many great features like integration with Twitter.
- NewsBlur: you can use NewsBlur for free for up to 64 feeds; after that it is $36 per year. It’s primarily an app for Android and iOS, but will also work as a web application.
- Feed Wrangler: although it is a commercial product, Feed Wrangler is very cheap: just $19 per year. It’s got a very nice interface and is easy to use. On the downside, it only supports iOS and web applications. It also doesn’t interface with social media, which, for some, may be a good thing.
RSS was developed in the early days of the web, when syndication was unheard of. It’s now used to glue together advanced services and internet-connected devices. Clearly, RSS isn’t dead, but the way we use it has changed significantly. It may have fallen from favor for news distribution, but it has plenty of other use cases to offer.
It’s worth remembering that RSS was born out of a love of blogging. Dave Winer, the original “father” of RSS, is regarded as one of the most prolific bloggers in the world. In fact, he was writing content and distributing it via email before the concept of a “web log” even existed. He describes the web as a “writing environment”, and even developed a prototype blogging and RSS application that paved the way for Twitter. He undoubtedly saw potential in syndication that many web users are only just starting to discover.
Screenshots and charts courtesy of the editor. The Death of Munrow by British, Staffordshire via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is in the public domain. Mailboxes by Moosealope is licensed under CC BY 2.0 and was cropped for size.
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