Part 10: Disadvantages of Webfeeds (RSS)

NOTE: This is part 10 of a 12-part CONTENTIOUS tutorial, What Are Webfeeds (RSS), and Why Should You Care? (Full table of contents available on that main page.)

Obviously, I’m an unabashed proponent of webfeeds (often called RSS feeds). I think they offer tremendous advantages. But every new change is always a tradeoff.

Here are some of the major disadvantages of webfeeds…

  1. Learning is a hassle. Any time a new technology, tool, or medium is introduced for a general (nontechnical) audience, the developers and promoters have to face the fact that Net users are already dreadfully overwhelmed. They don’t want to learn anything new. It’s a hassle for them. They’d rather stick with what they already know. Therefore, any new introduction must offer substantial advantages that typical users will find so alluring that they are willing to put up with the hassle of learning in order to try it out.

    Webfeeds face precisely this hurdle – which is why I emphasize offering them as a complement to existing online communications. Don’t force your audience to switch to a new medium. Offer them a choice.

  2. Webfeeds aren’t yet as easy to use as the Web or e-mail. This will probably change as the tools evolve. (I hope!) However, right now lots of people who are intrigued by the concept of webfeeds get intimidated or annoyed the first time they see how ugly a feed file looks in a Web browser – and they give up. That’s a big problem. Again, as feed reader tools evolve, this will become less of a drawback. But right now, it’s a significant obstacle to popular adoption.
  3. It’s hard to know how many people read your webfeed. This is a big concern for online publishers whose business models hinge on subscription or readership numbers. With e-mail newsletters, publishers not only know exactly how many people are subscribed, but they have contact info for each subscriber. Likewise with Web content, Web statistics often provide detailed metrics.

    Online publishers have grown extremely attached to numerical precision regarding readership, and they’re generally reluctant to let go of that. Ultimately I believe that new and more reliable ways to count webfeed readers will emerge – perhaps modeled on how the broadcast media estimate viewing or listening audiences. But for now, it’s a tall order to ask online publishers to relinquish total control over the census of their audience.

  4. Server load concerns. Some Web hosts and system administrators are concerned about the demands that feed readers will place on their servers. Each time your feed reader checks (polls) a webfeed (which is, after all, a file that exists on a Web server) for updates, that act places a miniscule burden on the Web server.

    Multiply that tiny burden out by the fact that most feed readers will poll a webfeed at least every few hours, and that not all feed readers poll in the most efficient way, and that the number of people who use webfeeds is growing exponentially each day. All of this results in a potentially huge new demand on Web servers.

    I don’t have the answer to this problem – but I don’t doubt for a minute that there IS a good answer to it, and that the smart techies of the world will find it soon. Also, responsible webfeed users can do their part to reduce their burden on Web servers by selecting the best feed readers and configuring them to poll feeds at appropriate intervals.

    See this April 30, 2004 Wired News article for more on this particular concern. Also, webfeed publishers might want to read this Aug. 11, 2003, Lockergnome article on optimizing your feed to conserve bandwidth.

On Jan. 21, 2004, blogger Dylan Green posted a more extensive list of his top 10 reasons why RSS is not ready for prime time. While I don’t agree with all of his points or reasoning, this is a worthwhile reality-check for any wefeed fan to read. Don’t miss the extensive discussion in the comments to this article.

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  1. I don’t think the server load is really an issue. A poll is one stateless HTTP-request, which puts no more load on the server than fetching an image in a web page. And since rss promotes selective reading of a site (as opposed to browsing through its content looking for news), the load may actually decrease.