On surviving Yahoo Pipes, Feedburner futures, and the subscription web

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed October 13, 2015
The death of Yahoo Pipes has fed into hand-wringing about the future of Google Feedburner. The future of the subscription web seems bleak, but I'm strangely optimistic.

We're all too familiar with the pain of "free" web services that disappear and leave us with migration chores. Sometimes, we're truly at a loss. When Google Reader fell, other RSS readers benefited, but I know many folks who gave up on RSS readers entirely.

Those of us steeped in the joys of blogging are particularly wary of Google Feedburner, a flawed but potent subscription service that has lacked public support from Google and is exactly the kind of free service that seems destined for the Alphabet reorg guillotine. Concerns for Feedburner go beyond RSS junkies; one virtue of Feedburner is supporting blog email subscriptions.

It's gotten to the point where we don't wait for the dreaded discontinuation news - we start rehearsing it ahead of time:

cue the consternation:

I'm not sure Feedburner is on services death row yet - more on that shortly - but I don't fault Ms. Simon for her Feedburner angst. History backs her up.

Feedburner and Yahoo Pipes - protecting and migrating your feeds

It's been a tough quarter for RSS junkies, as we endured the thoroughly unsurprising loss of Yahoo Pipes. Yahoo Pipes was one of the most wonderful free services in the history of productive noodling. But as the new walled gardens (Facebook, LinkedIn) assert their power, "open web" stalwarts like Yahoo crush their geek credibility in the stampede for another business model (in Yahoo's case, it seems to be an AOL-type media/entertainment/trending topics advertising prayer that isn't going so well).

Pipes was good for lots of geeky process things. One of the handiest: mashing and filtering RSS feeds. Prior to diginomica, when I was posting on numerous channels, giving readers one mashed-up feed of all my content was swell. But Yahoo Pipes' RSS output was one of the yuckiest URLs ever; no email subscription support was provided. Plus, I never put much stock in Yahoo's commitment to Pipes.

The solution? Mashup and filter RSS feeds in a Yahoo Pipe, and run that pipe through Feedburner for an easy URL - and email subscription delivery. Super cool, and, as the garden walls go up, super fragile. The good news? If you were using Pipes as an RSS mashup, it's easy to rebuild. I already use Dlvr.it to distribute diginomica and jonerpnewsfeed content. I used Dlvr.it to reconstitute my Master Blog and Podcast Feed, which includes my diginomica posts, filtered by author, my YouTube video Hangout interviews, and my on-site podcasts. Email subscription works like a charm.

There are alternatives to Dlvr.It for these purposes, I'm (pretty sure) you can do this with the versatile IFTTT service, but Dlvr.it fits the bill of my replacement services: easy to setup, paid service that might stick around since it actually has a revenue model (here's a rundown of Yahoo Pipes alternatives).

The death of Yahoo Pipes was swift and unsentimental. Yahoo's announcement was bizarrely admirable in its refusal to pander to the passionate geeks who once had a stake in the company's future. No false words were spoken, and the URL now leads to a dead page. Yahoo is too indifferent to even bother with a redirect to its celebrity-crazed home page. But hey, the Pipes Twitter page remains open for Yahoo archeologists historians.

Feedburner won't go quietly - but do RSS subscribers matter?

If Feedburner goes away, something tells me it would not be a quiet goodbye. Feedburner is widely used, migration is daunting, and the alternatives are, in my view, unappealing (here's an informative piece on the pros and cons of Feedburner). The problem is that many RSS folks use Feedburner as the front end for their RSS. That works great when swapping a Pipes RSS for a Dlvr.it RSS on the back end, but what happens when you need to swap away from Feedburner?

You can back up your Feedburner email subscribers any time you want. Google would allow plenty of time to export the emails if Feedburner was kiboshed. As for RSS, feed locations get swapped all the time, and often the redirects don't work. That means you'd lose your subscriber base - at least in terms of an auto-transition.

I certainly wouldn't trust Google to handle an RSS redirect very well or very long if Feedburner is ever given end-of-life. The best seat-of-the-pants alternative is writing a blog to your readers on the existing RSS feed letting them know of the change, and urging them to manually resubscribe.

I don't sweat the potential end of Feedburner much. First off, I don't think the end is imminent. What some doom-and-gloomers have overlooked is that Blogger, Google's blog platform, is tied into Feedburner for email subscription delivery. And while you can debate RSS, email subscription is far from dead, though the opt-in game is changing.

I don't believe Google would truly end Feedburner until it ended Blogger itself. If Google Plus was thriving, I could see Google incorporating mini-blog features into Google Plus and getting rid of Blogger. But Google Plus isn't thriving, despite Google's ludicrous assertions to the contrary.

I'm not qualified to speak on the future of Blogger itself, but I do think that open blogging platforms are under their biggest threat since their inception. For an individual without a corporate platform, blogging on an established site like LinkedIn is far better exposure than an obscure Blogger location. And now Facebook is luring bloggers in by beefing up its Notes feature.

I don't sweat the end of Feedburner because:

  1. I see this playing out over years, not months
  2. I don't worry much about losing RSS subscribers
  3. At least my email subscribers are backed up

Why don't I stress over RSS subscribers? It's not because they are irrelevant. In our diginomica stats, I see a modest but dedicated referral stream from RSS feeds, in particular, Feedly. My own Feedburner stats (which aren't perfect, Feedburner's stats are notoriously wonky) show me high levels of reader engagement, some of which I can trace into our diginomica stats. My experience is that RSS subscribers are very dedicated individuals. If they lose you, they will find you again.

I hear from these folks on Twitter, looking for updates on my jonerpnewsfeed location (also Feedburner). They are willing to seek you out. And those I interact with are the kinds of thoughtful, opinionated readers you want. I consider them highly-desirable and vocal readers. Web sites getting rid of RSS options are making a big mistake.

If, however, you are a serious techie or have the desire to employ one, you could task them with a sophisticated workaround. Essentially, Feedburner becomes your feed proxy, and your permanent feed URL is a subdomain of your own web site. If you want a popsicle headache, you can browse the details at the end of this tech-filled article. Of course, if you mashup an RSS from different sources, you'll have to take your hacking one step further. Good luck - but like I said, I'm not sure the effort would be justified.

Final thoughts - Feeds aren't dead, and curation is potent

It's fashionable to claim that RSS is dead, and therefore content feeds are dead. RSS isn't dead, especially in tech circles, where those who consume by RSS include some influential journalists. I curate my jonerpnewsnewsfeed out of a paid version of Newsblur, a kickass RSS reader with great mobile clients (at least on Android, haven't tried the IoS version). Feedburner serves it up, including a lovely morning email summary. Dlvr.it distributes it on multiple platforms, with varied timing.

In my Newsblur account, I have more than 1,200 feeds, organized by topic and priority, honed over years. As a bootstrapper who never had access to paid analyst reports, I remain surprised at how few  take advantage of the power of this kind of organized "pull". I owe my enterprise career to the advantages toiling over those feeds has given me. When I began this curation journey, I was demoralized by setbacks in my profession and my lack of inside information. As soon as I started honing my first feedreader, a big 'ol lightbulb went off. The adventures it spawned defy rational sense. Hopefully a few others out there are nodding their heads.

Any readers who feel they are on the outside looking in, I urge you to consider the power of this type of curation to master your field, connect with subject matter experts, and change your professional life. Few resources are needed - aside from your dedication.

The point is, it's not too late to start. Of my 1,200 or so feeds, offhand I can only think of a few web sites in the enterprise software industry that don't support RSS subscription. One of them dropped support after a redesign, but when I requested, they brought them back. Wordpress sites support RSS by default; modern feedreaders can pull the feed out of the home page URL.

Big corporate tech sites have decreased their support of RSS by author and category, but you can solve that by using an RSS filtering service, or just drink from the main firehose. And there is a nifty service called page2RSS that automatically converts a web page into RSS format, where you can get pings on changes. I actually only need it for one web site, an analyst web site that is clueless about RSS.

The only concern in LinkedIn, which does not support RSS blog subscriptions by author. Most of the good #ensw bloggers on LinkedIn also cross-post to their own Wordpress blog, so I get their stuff another way. A good chunk of LinkedIn blogs are shit anyhow. I don't mind boycotting LinkedIn blogs based on their refusal to support RSS. And guess what? I catch the best of those blogs anyhow, through email-based delivery of Digg Deeper, which alerts me to the most shared articles on my social streams several times a day.

Is LinkedIn's refusal to support RSS a sign of the future? Yes and no. LinkedIn is powerful enough to call their own shots. Most other sites feel obliged to support at least one RSS firehose - they aren't expensive to maintain. There's plenty of good RSS highway in front of us. On the back end, all these sites use feeds to power their pages (see: Facebook's Newsfeed, powered by algorithms beyond the comprehension of mortal humans). These sites are doubling down on feed-powered content - even as they hypocritically deny us access to subscription feeds.

I can live with that. A bit of hacking is good for the soul. As for those who think everything should be easy and out-of-the-box, I hear ya. But in the age of the surveillance state, we all need enough savvy to muck around in the bowels of our privacy settings. The journey from that into RSS and content hacking isn't far. Go ahead - the water is still warm.

End note: this piece is part of my semi-regular diginomica series on productivity, filtering, and beating the noise.

Image credit: Hacker tries to attack © andreacionti - Fotolia.com