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.

Free images for web projects

zoom lens of camera

Alternatively you could take the pictures yourself ...

Finding the right picture for a particular project can be a pain when you have a limited budget available. Luckily, there are plenty of places on the web to find images which are available for free use. Most “free” images still have some sort of conditions attached to usage, so always check the terms associated with an individual picture before you publish it. Below is a list I’ve compiled of useful free image sites with some brief comments on each, so that you can get an idea of what they cover.

Easy Stock Photos
Public domain pictures in loads of categories. Subjects you may not find elsewhere include Attractions, Education, Events, Music and Tools & Machinery. Not as many pictures under each category as elsewhere, but generally good quality.

Search engine for stock photos over multiple collections. Registration is required and photos found will have individual licenses for use which you need to ensure you comply with. The “featured searches” section on the front page gives you a good idea of the search index’s depth.

Finally Creative
Public domain image gallery. Large number of nature pictures.

Good general selection, especially strong on UK-specific images.

Free Pictures
Extensive collection of animal pictures.

Nice selection of topics covered, especially strong on animals and travel.

The usual section types, plus specialities including useful Christmas and Halloween sections, images of gemstones and hearts and a whole section on Bruges!

Wide range of nicely categorised images. Good selection of backdrop images. Home, office, sports, seasonal, technology & transport, objects and nature are among the categories, with good numbers of images in each. Requires registration to see all pictures.

‘Repository for free public domain photos’. Decent variety on offer. The selection of background images could be particularly useful.

Gimp Savvy
Lots of nature and space pictures.

“Large online free photo collection”. Great for textures, as well as including a full range of other topics.

“Public image reference archive” which “contains free high resolution digital stock photography for either corporate or public use”. Great selection, well organised into sections.

Some nice photos with UK locations and transport well covered and a good range of objects, abstract & concept images and backgrounds & textures. Registration required to download images.

Good selection, especially strong on USA location travel photos.

Royalty-free stock photos on a full range of categories. The “light effects” category has some nice ideas.

Large site – includes good balance of nature and industrial images & selections of textures and 3D renders.

Huge gallery of images. Requires registration.

Uncle Sam’s Photos
“A directory of the U.S. government’s free stock photo sites.” Lots of useful stuff on the environment, science, transportation, health and people. American history too.

Free image gallery with some striking photos.

Wikimedia has a fantastic directory which has to be the list of free image resources currently available. Its designed to help people avoid naughtily posting copyrighted images on Wikipedia but is enormously helpful whatever your need for free pictures is. Another useful resource hosted on the Wikimedia toolserver is FIST – the Free Image Search Tool. Wikimedia Commons also has an enormous collection of freely usable media files.

Finally, you can search on Google or Flickr for free images. In Google, use advanced search and look for creative commons pictures by selecting “free to use, share or modify, even commercially” under Usage Rights. Flickr has a special section for pictures with a Creative Commons license.

Web work in a recession

There have been a lot of interesting posts recently on the Sitepoint and Webmaster World forums speculating about how well-placed web professionals are to deal with the oncoming recession. After a bit of research (10 minutes on said forums), I can summarise some of the main points made as follows:

  1. In so far as websites are part of marketing and advertising activities, they are likely to suffer in a recession since these areas tend to be the first to have their budgets cut when economic times are bad. However, online advertising may have a cost advantage over more expensive forms of offline promotional activity and could well see its proportion of marketing spend increase over the course of a recession. There is an interesting discussion on Webmaster World about recent trends in Google AdSense revenues which has some people reporting big drops in October and others saying things have stayed pretty steady. UK webmasters are in the happiest situation here, as the pound falling against the dollar means their AdSense revenues can actually be increasing.
  2. People working on websites which are vital to an organisation’s activities – e.g. through e-commerce or the provision of core services online – are less likely to be badly affected by cuts in a downturn.
  3. Small and large businesses alike are likely to suffer from lack of available credit. Small businesses and freelancers have the benefit of greater possible flexibility, but could be in trouble if they lack cash reserves or are too dependent upon big clients who go under.

The most sensible remedial advice on offer seems to revolve around striving to offer the best value to your organisation or client, aligning your offer closely to their business plan and coming up with ways to save them money wherever possible. Of course, I suppose we are doing this all the time anyway, aren’t we …?