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The problem with RSS, and how to fix it

by
Oct 9, 2013

As of today, RSS has failed. Even though there is a dedicated population using it, RSS never reached widespread popularity. Google’s latest research indicates that only 9.5% of internet users have ever subscribed to an RSS feed. 15 years after launch, RSS is still quite far from mainstream.

Why did it fail?  

As a concept, RSS makes a lot of sense. People can easily create their own newspaper, fed from their favorite blogs or news sites, not having to worry about spam (unsubscribing is easy – it’s not email).

However, RSS does not solve the main problem with respect to consuming news: information overload. Quite the opposite, many users who try out RSS complain about receiving too much content. Despite being able to pick the RSS-feeds of your choice, the content which is sent through the feeds contains a lot of irrelevant stuff. In other words, even hand-picked RSS feeds are still too broad and not tailored enough to subscribers' needs.

Example: Techcrunch

Techcrunch is an excellent news source for the tech-savvy; however the average number of published stories per day is 40. Would you subscribe to feeds which each send you 40 articles per day? You’d be completely overwhelmed.

Subscribing to Techcrunch’s RSS Feed only makes sense if you consume news at a glance only, which basically means just looking at them whenever you feel like it (as most RSS- and also Twitter-users do). However, this carries the risk that important messages get missed and is therefore not ideal.

Techcrunch tries to overcome this problem by offering sub-RSS Feeds for the main categories, e.g. Startups, Social, Europe, etc. This leads to somewhat more focus, however this solution is not fully satisfactory:

  • The choice of categories is limited: Most likely our information needs don’t exactly match the pre-determined categories. For example, although I am interested in startups, the Startup-RSS-Feed on Techcrunch still contains too many irrelevant messages (e.g. I am not interested in meetings or meetups). My information need is more nuanced: I only want startup news from companies in the mobile space, for example.  
  • Your specific interest may span different categories: Let’s say you’re running an online gambling site and want to get all gambling-related news. To which categories would you subscribe? If you don’t want to miss out on anything important you would end up subscribing to all categories which sets you back to square one.  

The Solution: Use the Tags!

Techcrunch, like most blogs, gives tags to every message which reflect the topic and content of the story. However, it is not possible to subscribe in a way that will only send you messages with selected tags. Why not?

Taking the gambling example from above: if you’re interested in gambling sites, would you subscribe to the general Techcrunch RSS Feed, or one of the pre-defined categories? Unlikely. Would you subscribe to a feed which only sends him all gambling-related news? Quite likely.

Offering visitors the option to only subscribe to stories with selected tags will turn almost every visitor into a potential subscriber. No matter what your interests are – if you can specify them and ensure that you only get news on those, the question changes from “who would subscribe to Techcrunch’s feed?” to “who would not subscribe to Techcrunch’s feed?”

It's also beneficial for users who struggle to come up with the tags they’re interested in because tags can also be used to exclude stories. Maybe you don’t know which news you want to receive, but almost certainly there are news with tags where you know you don’t waste your time on. This can also make the feed more specific and therefore more valuable for the subscriber.

SpecificFeeds: The tool to do it

This functionality has been implemented on SpecificFeeds and is now available to RSS feed publishers for free. It works in 3 easy steps: 

1.) Publishers syndicate their feed which automatically creates their own feed page on SpecificFeeds, e.g. for Techcrunch:

TechSF

2.) Subscribers tailor the feed to their needs by selecting the tags they are (not) interested in [Update Dec 31st: we have a new, better designed filter live]:

Tag

…or by selecting certain keywords:

Keyword

…or by selecting their favorite authors:

Author

3.) Users subscribe and receive messages according to their selections, either as single emails (messages delivered instantly) or in their “Personal Newspaper” which is one email containing several messages in one email per day or week (similar to an email digest).

Everybody wins

The benefit for subscribers is clear: more tailored news and higher relevancy. However, it’s also good for publishers:

  • More subscribers sign up 
  • Higher site rank in search engines as publishers get a free link to their site 
  • Subscribers actually read their messages as they get delivered by email and not as RSS, which is read at a glance only (and therefore often not read at all)

Importantly, there is no duplicated content. Only the stories’ headlines are sent through SpecificFeeds, which are links to the full stories (therefore increasing blog traffic instead of diverting it). The service is 100% free for both publishers as well as subscribers.

Why not try it out?

If you’re a publisher, get started by syndicating your feed now. If you’re a subscriber, browse through the directory of feeds already set up and tailor the feeds to your needs, so that you stay up-to-date on all the news you’re interested in – without causing information overload. 

We’re always happy for feedback. Please let us know your thoughts!

 

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