RSS: It's dead Jim or can we ping it back to life?

Thursday night I was in Soho, London for the monthly Beers and Innovation event organised by NMK’s Deirdre Molloy. The topic of the debate was “the future of RSS”. On the distinguished panel were Richard Edwards of MyZebra, Peter Nixey from Webkitchen along with Ivan Pope from Snipperoo.

bi.jpgIn summation, all the speakers unanimously agreed that RSS is great, as did most of the audience. Some people even spoke about how RSS had changed their lives. So surprisingly during the Q&A session some idiot had the audacity to proclaim that RSS is dead! Oh yes now I remember (strong stuff that beer) that idiot was me.

What was I thinking? Why would I commit such as a faux pas in a room full of my peers and why would I further compound the issue by blogging about it here? I could have simply buried the bad news and hoped no-one else in the room remembered or worse still blogged about my stupid rash statement. Obviously that was never going to happen, after all this is the blogosphere.

So why did I make so bold and bonkers a statement? In my defence there are a couple of valid reasons which I would like to elaborate on here. Firstly I wanted to be controversial and spark a debate in the room and secondly and more importantly, I struggle to see where RSS 2.0 is heading (the most commonly used version today) which is presumably why I attended the B&I event in the first place.

Right now RSS 3.0 is not something we should expect to see any time soon; no-one is working on it! Dave Winer the author of RSS 2.0, is currently focused on his “river of news” idea and has even stated that as far as he is concerned “the RSS 2.0 spec itself is now frozen” but of course new features can still be added to extend RSS using namespace modules, for example the Yahoo! media module – mRSS.

In fact for many people the Atom 1.0 spec could be considered RSS 3.0, if you are interested and would like to read more about Atom 1.0, Dave Johnson gave an excellent talk on the differences between the two feed formats and the forth coming Atom Publishing Protocol.

But do we even need another version of Atom or RSS? For many subscribers the adage seems to be “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. Personally I think RSS is great because, unlike email newsletters, I can anonymously subscribe to content and then choose to read it when or how I like. And better still, if I don’t like the content, I can simply and anonymously unsubscribe. So given this use case, RSS is great and “news of it’s death may have been greatly exaggerated”.

So what’s the problem? Well in this age of ad-supported free web content and free applications, advertisers see it differently and may prefer to use another adage instead to describe RSS “if you can’t measure it, you can’t monetise it”. And as a publisher, if we are not to kill this golden goose, then it is vital to provide the right type of feedback information to advertisers but worryingly there are very few reporting tools out there right now that can help do so. i.e how can I report how many people read the RSS feed and which channels/posts they read or ignored?

This reporting problem is not new, over two years ago Alex Barnett was asking the very same questions about RSS metrics but this probelm was never properly addressed but may need to be now because Dave Winer is once again questioning how publishers “measure rss” traffic. tcfeedcount.gif

TechCrunch’s reader statistics are determined by FeedBurner because it has the widest possible breadth of browser and aggregator support needed to help best measure and report on our RSS traffic. This report by Feedburner explains in depth how recently exceeded 100k subscribed readers.

But given the wide and varied ways people can now subscribe to a RSS feeds – i.e autodiscovery in IE7, Firefox and via other aggregators (Attensa, PageFlakes,, NetVibes etc) accuratley measuring how many people subscribe to your RSS feed is tricky and at best only a guesstimate.

For example I read via my Attensa RSS Reader in Outlook which is not supported by FeedBurner which in turn means I am not counted in the 100k+ user statistics. [note: Attempts were made by the industry to create a universal subscriber method (USM) but these seem to have died.]

But are advertisers really interested in subscription numbers alone and is this the best measure of content value? I have lots of subscribed feeds in my aggregator(s) that are unread, partly due to time constraints and partly due to the fact that only one or two of the actual post items are of interest to me. The rest remain unread and will be automatically deleted after 30 days.

So I believe that it is the actual number of readers that consume RSS content rather than the number of subscribers which advertisers and publishers would prefer to measure.

Maybe what is needed instead is a new RSS ping service that reports when a feed item has been read/viewed. Therefore it won’t matter what client aggregator is used to subscribe to the feed. In many ways this would be similar to the read notification functionality found in many email clients i.e when someone reads an email of mine, I can setup the email client to alert me with a read notification message. With a RSS ping reporting service built into RSS aggregators, it could achieve the same thing whilst still maintaining my anonymity as an RSS reader by not passing back any of my personal details to the ping server. In fact blog tracking sites like Technorati work in much the same way. Every time I post a blog entry it alerts a ping server via XML-RPC that I have a new post I wish it to index.

In many ways ping services like pingomatic and/or pingerati are already capable of supporting this type of RSS ping “reproting” service today. All that is needed is for RSS publishers to write their feeds in the manner as shown below.


So is RSS really dead? In some ways yes because what RSS needs is a new injection of life to help it develop to the next level. As a purist I am saddened to see advertising within my RSS feeds but as advertisers and publishers begin to realise that less of us read websites/blogs where their adverts are displayed and more of us read the content via our RSS aggregators, advertising in the RSS feeds is inevitable.

I could of course choose to unsubscribe in protest to any RSS feed with adverts but that would be cutting of my nose to spit myself because more often than not the content I want is contained within the very same RSS feed and as a publisher I need to monetise my content in order to ensure it remains free for subscribers. Right now I do not have adverts within my RSS feed.

So I believe the future of RSS is better reporting via a ping service that enables advertisers to include contextual advertising within the RSS feed. RSS 2.0 doesn’t natively provide this capability today. A proposed RSS module does enable this functionality to be added but I would like to see this as a standard component of RSS which is why I said RSS 2.0 is dead at the B&I event.

Maybe I would have been better of to have said its dead Jim but not as we know it?

Personally I would like to see this functionality also included inside of the Atom 1.0 Publishing protocol which hopefully will replace the metaweblog API and XML-RPC. Of course there might be an alternative method to update publishers, and thus report to advertisers in turn as to how many feeds and post items have been read, using Microsoft’s bi-directional RSS extension called Simple Sharing Extensions (SSE)?

Either way RSS cannot remain the same. It needs to evolve and to include better reporting capabilites. RSS 2.0 is dead, long live the next version!