Why aren’t RSS feeds more popular?

When I suggested adding RSS feeds to our website at my workplace over two years ago I explained the need to do so partly by explaining that “They aren’t mainstream now, but many more people will be using feeds once IE7 comes out.” IE7 came out, IE8 will soon be here and RSS still doesn’t seem to be much better understood by the general public – which doesn’t say much for my predictive abilities. I still have to regularly explain from square one to users how to access our feeds, since the vast majority of people still seem blissfully unaware about what they are and how to use them.

A Hiveminds article from a couple of years ago called 5 Reasons Why RSS Feeds are Not Popular still seems largely accurate today. It remains pretty much the case that only really keen Internet users subscribe to RSS feeds. Below are my 5 reasons why RSS feeds still aren’t popular today:

  1. RSS is still unknown to most people. As the Hiveminds article put it: “The average Internet user still has no idea what RSS is or how to go about using it. … To the average website visitor RSS feeds seem to be a geek toy requiring knowledge that they don’t have time to gain or just are are not interested in.” This is still very true and it can be tough to explain to non-technical users how to use feeds due to the variety of different readers available – browser-based, online services and stand-alone feed reader applications. People are stuck in their ways and like email alerts because they have plenty of experience in using them. Understanding RSS and the tools to use it is an effort for many people, as the concepts can seem fuzzy compared to the concrete experience of e-mail which everyone shares.
  2. Corporate IT types generally aren’t interested in RSS. A lot of regular IT guys don’t seem to have much of an idea about RSS, unless they’re specifically web developers. Corporate IT departments don’t tend to support RSS readers or promote their use. There seems to be much more enthusiasm for RSS among Information Management or library professionals in organisations, but they don’t usually have as much influence on organisational priorities.
  3. Marketing people generally aren’t interested in RSS. There also seems to be a lack of enthusiasm for RSS among marketing professionals. In large part, I think this is because there is a perception that RSS is a boring textual medium and that they will have more control over the look of an email than over how a feed will be received. Because a lot of feeds don’t even have basic styles applied to them, there must also be a lot of people who have clicked on them and been frightened by the fact that they look like code.
  4. RSS feeds still fail frequently. This was mentioned in the Hiveminds article two years ago and still seems to be a problem today. The idea that validating “doesn’t matter” or “is nice if you can do it” is still prevalent with web teams, but with RSS it does really matter. RSS feeds are also out of sight, out of mind – since a non-functioning feed isn’t as visible as a page which isn’t displaying properly. The fact that so many feeds are generated automatically by a content management system means that a lot of web editors / communications team running a website don’t understand the reasons why RSS feeds fail.
  5. When feeds fail they don’t necessarily get fixed quickly. This is in large part due to the low priority RSS feeds have in organisations or personal web projects – fuelled by reasons one to four above. The people who work in an organisation, who are often the first to complain if a page doesn’t display properly, are less likely to understand or care about an RSS feed. Because RSS is low in the priorities of business managers due to indifference or ignorance, it’ll be low in the priorities of the web team, who are likely to be preoccupied with stuff they find more exciting. This similarly helps to explain why RSS feeds are often not redirected when sites are redesigned and pages are moved around. Feeds are probably among the last thing people generally think about in redesigns, as opposed to visual elements and cool functionality.

The Hiveminds article concluded that “if web browsers included feed readers by default it would probably increase RSS usage 10 fold”. It now looks as if browsers providing built-in feed readers will not in itself make subscribing to feeds a mainstream activity, since IE7 has been providing a feed reader since its launch. RSS’s successes with the general public have been away from the direct subscription model – with services like MyYahoo where people don’t even know that they’re using RSS.

People using sites pulling content dynamically from feeds don’t need to understand what technology’s behind the content they’re browsing. Many people will continue to benefit from RSS without realising it in this way and it looks like the future for mass adoption of RSS lies in this less demanding model of feed consumption, where the underlying technology is invisible to a user who just has to decide what stuff he wants to know more about.

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