The Good, Bad and Ugly of RSS

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.

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Long time blogger, Father of Jack, geek of many things, random photographer and writer of nonsense.

Doing my best to find a balance.

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I would call the software a feed reader. ‘News’ is (was?) a particular something else, and feeds needn’t be RSS.

I went quite rapidly from someone who didn’t see the point in feed readers to someone who only normally visits the real sites to post comments. I find that I do much more reading (without forgetting who I was following) but much less commenting; where bloggers don’t have a comments feed I often forget even to check for comments. Although I drop by most of the real sites every now and then to see if they still look the same (or to check blogrolls if I’m bored) I tend to miss a lot of the secondary content; Flickr applets and so on.

Whether to put teasers or full posts in the feed largely depends why the feed is there. I’ve no real secondary content (and my comments are available in a different feed), I don’t really want to showcase my site design (which ultimately is very close to the default for my CMS), so in order to get the articles out there I’ll gladly put the whole posts into the reader. If people skip them because they’re long, well, those people wouldn’t have gone over the fold had they been at the site anyway.
In fact, I think I’ll go and make a teaser feed, in case anyone is displaying my feed inline with others.

Ironically, I had to click the “more” link in Google Reader and actually haul myself over here to get the end of this post.

QE – good point, I must look into including comments in a feed.

Lesley – ack! Hoisted on my own thingy… which I guess raises another question, who do you write for, the feed reader users, or those people who visit your website? Both?

I’ll remove the “more” link though..


I use Feedreader 2.90 – so the term "feed reader" is a bit odd when there is a piece of software with that name. Perhaps "RSS reader" would be better?

One thing that RSS feeds do highlight is the value of a decent headline that actually relates to the content. You tend to be better than some other bloggers in that, in general, your headlines relate to the content (this post is a good example). If the headline were something like "Tuesday ramblings", then I wouldn’t have a clue about the content and, as we are all time-poor, would probably skip over it. (Actually, that’s a lie, I’d read it anyway when I should be doing something more useful, like my accounts, for example). If ever I get back into providing regular content at grayblog, I must make an effort to give useful headlines. In fact, it is one thing I dislike about posts – the headline just says something like "links for Tuesday" and not something like "today’s bookmarks related to RSS feeds" or whatever. I wonder if there is a widget for WordPress and that might do that.

Considering I used to pull two random words from the post to constitute the headline then.. I guess it was a subconscious decision to use proper headlines when I decide to write longer posts like this one..

I hope that not too many people read my RSS feed. It appears to be totally borked at the moment – publishing an entire post as one huge paragraph – or at least that’s what I see in Google Reader.

And I don’t really understand enough about the XML structures in the feed to work out what’s wrong with it.

Mmm. I think RSS readers are helping to kill ‘traditional’ blogging in the way that TV on demand is likely to kill the diversity of telly. People less likely to stumble upon things they didn’t realise they would like, an’ all that.

That’s not that I’m against them – it’s just an observation. That might be wrong.

I published a full feed for a few weeks, but reverted back – I just didn’t think it worked as well reading out of context. Again, I might be wrong about that.

Hmmm, interesting. I want to write loads of things, but I haven’t got time, drat.

Jonny B jumped in there while I was reading and summarised in his first para much of what I might have said rather less succinctly.

JonnyB – Depends what you mean by “TV on demand” – I watch MORE TV now since we got Sky+ in but that’s more PVR than “on demand”. Ultimately I can now choose to watch only what I want, and I’m MORE likely to record things, just in case.

And when you say “out of context” what context do they need? Anyone who subscribes to your blog is, presumably, a reader who has read one of the posts already, not a first time reader, that’s a whole different audience if you ask me, and something that is worth bearing in mind. Your audience is easily split into first time and ‘repeating’ visitors. Which would YOU rather cater for?

RSS feeds have helped me to find more blogs over time. If I was visiting each site individually to catch up (usually only when the little star appeared next to the blog link to tell me there was an update) then I would be missing out on so much good content due to the amount of time loading each site.

I must admit to skipping over diet RSS posts as they usually don’t tell me enough or entice me into clicking through to the site to read the full post. Not always, but that happens more often than not. And yes, that means I also miss good content.

Only real issue for me with RSS is over-subscribing. I’ll always catch up with blog posts but the tech news tends to get blasted if I start falling behind. When that happens I try to trim feeds and make the flow of information more manageable.

I mean… er… well it was sort of a phrase I read somewhere…

I think my point though is that you probably didn’t see the fascinating documentary on the horned tortoises of Albania the other night. Because it wasn’t something you thought you’d be interested in and didn’t make an effort to seek out, you missed it as you were catching up with other great stuff instead.

SO you had a brilliant evening watching TV. But will never know about the delights of the horned tortoises of Albania. Which in a very very small way is a shame.

I changed, a while ago, to a partial feed, just to see if it made any difference to the number of visitors. Since I rarely bother to check stats, I’ve no idea if it did. I intended to switch back sometime, but you’ve prompted me. Having just looked at my stats, my visitor numbers doubled yesterday – which is probably because it was my birthday, so RSS subscribers dropped in, rather than skimming past, when they saw the post title. I think that is rather charming and friendly.

I use a RSS feed so that I know when people update. I usually click through to the site because I prefer to read the post there.

RSS feeds strip away design and force readers to focus on content. Which is great if you have good content, and a bit of a killer if you don’t.

I still prefer the wholeness of a proper blog page to being fed an endless succession of decontextualised text.

“wholeness of a proper blog page”

I guess that’s down to usage. I don’t use blogs as sources of links to other random blogs (via sidebar blogrolls or whatnot), and a lot of the time I don’t do anything else other than read the content, to the point that (I think it was Adrian Sevitz) once asked if anyone had seen the changes to his site. I said no, to which he retorted that they were in a list displayed right at the top of his sidebar… which I hadn’t ever scanned across to read.

The wholeness of webpage is a downfall of most blog designs (mine included) as there is typically a split between the content and the sidebar, it’s too easy to ignore everything else which.. well that makes it kinda like an RSS feed.. no?

With regard to the TV “On demand” thing, I do think that’s something that TiVo got right, and no-one else has yet been able to mimic.

With TiVo, you ‘rated’ programmes with a thumbs-up/thumbs-down , and based on those preferences, TiVo would record random other stuff that was aligned with those preferences.

It meant that while you recorded the things you wanted, you ended up with other things that you *might* want to see. At first it was truly bizarre, but as time went on it became uncannily accurate on some things. Although it still always insisted I might want to watch “Cold Case” and “Without A Trace” – both of which I hate, and repeatedly thumbs-downed.

So, not perfect, but still better than Sky+. The EPG and interface were miles better too. Not that that’s difficult.

[…] are reading. What would be the point if you had no way of knowing if people were reading or not. Gordon McLean (whose recent post on RSS is an interesting read) falls into this […]

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