RSS is STILL Not Very Simple!

How many of you are reading this in an RSS aggregator of some sort? Come on, raise your hands. Yah, me to. But that’s cause we’re all geeks, right? I’m willing to wager that you have a blog with an RSS feed as well, right? I thought so.

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 and Roy Osherove even came up with a few reasons why “Really Simple Syndication” isn’t really simple. Essentially, it’s a usability nightmare:

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

I agree with him for the most part, and I’ll add #5, Subscribe to a Feed

Find out what RSS means

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to explain what RSS is to someone. It’s not easy to do, even to Internet savvy users. Here’s about the best I’ve been able to do:

“Well, RSS is a method of getting the word out about your Web site by creating this file that is essentially a “what’s new” list of stuff on your Web site. Someone then uses a program called an “RSS Aggregator” or a “News aggregator” to “Subscribe” to that feed (oh ya, a feed is what the RSS file is called…), and the aggregator program tells you every time that site is updated, kind of like an e-mail program…”

This usually brings on a look of extreme confusion and frustration that can (sometimes) be quelled by a few well-placed clarifying remarks that vary based on who I’m talking to, but as you can see, I have a hard time explaining it. If any of you out there have found a simpler explanation, please let me know.

But then think about how we present our feeds on our Web sites. Tiny orange buttons that say “RSS” or “XML” or “Syndicate” or “Subscribe” on them. When you click on this button (which an uniformed user would probably only do out of sheer curiosity) you get A RAW XML FILE AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! That is unless you went to the trouble of applying some XSL transforms to your feed. Don’t worry, I haven’t done that either.

A recent study done by Yahoo (pdf) shows that only 12% of Internet users are actually aware of what this little orange button could possibly mean. That is, only 12% of Internet users are actually aware RSS exists.

Find a news reader / Download and Install it.

Another usability hurdle (and a very large one at that) is that once someone is really convinced that RSS is a useful thing, one must go to great lengths to locate, download, install, and configure (or perhaps in the case of online aggregator programs, sign up for an account) the aggregator program.

Find sites that offer RSS feeds / Subscribe to that feed

This is not as large a hurdle as the last one, but it is yet another usability hurdle in the widespread use of RSS Feeds. Most major Web sites, nearly all blogs, and close to every content driven site worth its salt offer RSS feeds, but subscribing to these feeds can be a headache. In short, there is no “one click” way of subscribing to a feed (though the “feed:” protocol shows some promise). Usually the process 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, and clicking “Subscribe”; a painful process at best, complete and utter roadblock at worst.

Bloglines (my aggregator of choice) has a fairly nice “Subscribe with bloglines” bookmarklet. Yahoo Toolbar combined with My Yahoo has some pretty good options for subscribing to a feed. Firefox and Safari have implemented various RSS “one click” subscription options. Though this isn’t as useful when you work on multiple computers as I do. Mozilla has integrated RSS subscription into Thunderbird, it’s e-mail client. These are great 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 RSS feeds.

What to do? What to do?

4% adoption of such a brilliant technology is a shocker to me. The ability to have the Web come to you, rather than you having to go to the Web changed my life. (Okay, that was a little melodramatic). However, one thing we should NOT do is despair that not everyone uses a brand new (couple years old) technology. 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 syndicated 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. And thirdly, those of us who do know how to use RSS need to continue to make use of it in our projects. Implementing small-scale aggregators into our sites to show relevant blog postings and news topics. Showing our flickr photos via it’s RSS feed, or links in the same manner on our personal sites are a small step forward in this process.

Don’t believe that RSS can really change the world…

Let’s not give up yet. This is an infantile technology that has great potential beyond just telling the world what is new on your site (podcasting anyone?) We are going to need to learn utilize it in a less geeky and more idiot-proof “don’t make me think or work” style way.

RSS, adoption, usability, technology, web, future






2 responses to “RSS is STILL Not Very Simple!”

  1. Robert Winder Avatar

    Hi Matt, it looks like you and I were pondering the very same things at almost the same time, not a big shock. I think you need to look at the value of RSS from the “audience” perspective not the “publishing” perspective, as you’ve already said. I made this point on my blog here:



  2. Jørgen Arnor Gårdsø Lom Avatar

    Can I lower my hand down, now?

    I think much of the problem with RSS is that the only effective solution I’ve found is NetNewsWire via Safari… Are there ANY good, user friendly RSS readers for Windows at all?! Even though I hate to admit it,- most non-techies are on Win…

    I don’t think the “finding sites that sport RSS” should be that much of a problem – we already see most sites on the web having RSS-feeds; and if people were to see all the benefits, I cannot possibly believe that the trend would in any way turn…

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