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The insanity of dumping RSS feeds

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy February 14, 2016
We keep hearing that RSS is dead but is it? No, RSS feed usage is up and those who switch off their feeds are harming their business.

We're a great believer in achieving the widest possible distribution as possible. RSS feeds allow that because they can be easily consumed in many places. RSS was one of the principle ways in which the early bloggers were able to syndicate their content and achieve large scale distribution. To this day, RSS remains one of the best ways to get content onto many people's screens in as friction free a way as possible. In the last few years though, we have seen a number of idiotic posts declaring that RSS is dead. That's utter nonsense.

Back in 2013, TechCrunch, that bastion of inch deep and mile wide analysis said:

The idea of RSS was one that never quite gripped with normal Internet users. Sure, for us geeks who absolutely love consuming as much information as possible, RSS is a wonderland. When Google launched Reader in 2005, I can remember surfing to all of my favorite sites and looking for that little RSS logo, clicking on it and subscribing to the feed. So easy, so awesome to “us,” and so not easy or awesome to anyone else on the planet.

I’ve heard many smart people try to explain RSS to normal folks, such as “turning content into television stations, allowing you to subscribe only to what you want to consume.” That one didn’t work. Neither did any other explanation, because RSS as a technology is too nerdy, too behind-the-scenes and lacked general consumer appeal. Nobody ever took RSS under its wing and “mentored” it.

Instead, TechCrunch posited that services like Twitter, Flipboard and Facebook pushed RSS to one side. The logic of the argument is lost on me other than the fact it is used as a crutch to explain how Google Reader passed into oblivion. Ironically, TechCrunch maintains feeds. What has happened?

Last year, Make Use Of said:

Of course, when some of the biggest tech companies pull their support for it [RSS], it sure could seem like death is inevitable. Google pulled its Reader (2013), Twitter killed support for RSS (2013), Apple dropped RSS out of OS X Mountain Lion(2012), and Firefox dropped its RSS button (2011). That’s a lot of big names getting out of the RSS game.

Some of the larger on-line news outlets have also cut their RSS feeds. As Reddit member Kcin, comments, “…lots of companies stopped providing RSS feeds…to build their own walled gardens.” From a business standpoint, that makes sense. Why would a company that has to pay wages and operating costs just give away their work for free?

There is a problem with this argument. Companies that are smart don't give away their work for free but they do give away plenty of knowledge in an effort to demonstrate they know what they're talking about. But then let's look at what's happened with RSS in the last year. This from Built With:


via BuiltWith
RSS Feed usage via Built With stats

Notice the big jump in the middle of 2015 among the top million websites? Notice how the top 10,000 have remained stable while the top 100,0000 have also grown well?

Even so, I see examples where companies have turned off RSS feeds in favor of getting people to sign up for email blasts, Facebook likes and Twitter follows. All of that other stuff is goof, but as Make Use Of said, those services, along with Linkedin represent walled gardens. Unless you're prepared to spend a good amount of advertising money, there is no way that those walled gardens can bring you anything like the distribution that curated RSS feeds can. Why? Because RSS puts content control into the hands of the reader. All other forms of distribution put control into the hands of the publisher. Does that matter?

We think it does. You can set up Google Alerts that are delivered as a feed. That is very useful at a time when people are clamoring for publicly available researched information. Savvy publishers understand this and make sure that their content is as SEO friendly as possible because that is the start of a virtuous circle that provides for organic growth and wide distribution. That may in turn lead to growth in mentions and links on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Those that shut off their feeds are effectively saying that SEO doesn't matter. And we have some stats to prove the point.

In preparing for this story, I found a few companies that have shut down their feeds in recent times. I then ran comparisons of shared content against ourselves over one week, one month, six months and a year to see what has happened. In every case where a feed was dropped, I found that content sharing had also dropped dramatically. In one case, share traffic fell 78%. In addition, I also found that the frequency with which content was published drifted lower.

I can assume that as the company saw traffic fall from shared sources that its content producers became disheartened or were moved on to produce other things. We cannot know the extent to which they grew email subscriptions and perhaps there was a degree of compensation. After all, there is no shortage of stories extolling the virtues of email marketing as a tool to expand business. Managing email blasts is a significant undertaking that can be partially automated and sometimes produces amazing results. But it is not the wunderkind that so many believe.

The big disadvantage with RSS is that it is much more difficult to know who is sucking up the feed. Plenty can be inferred but it doesn't provide the richness of detail that you can get from other forms of outreach. Nevertheless, RSS is alive and very well. Used with care and tied to a sensible SEO strategy can bring solid results while ensuring that you have covered all the omni-channel bases.

Image credits: Featured image, hands holding an open email envelope, overlay with At symbol made of padlocks ©faith. Main story image RSS Man ©3d Labs. Both via Fotolia. 

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