I love being an RSS evangelist. I tell everyone I know why RSS feeds are so cool. They think I’m a geek. I don’t care, they’ll thank me for it later.
(Read my RSS feed backgrounder.)
But I’ll admit it… I get so frustrated trying to explain to people why I think RSS feeds are so cool and important because most people don’t know what the heck they are. It’s kind of like explaining the Web in 1992, I guess. Unless you’re into weblogs, chances are you probably haven’t heard of RSS.
I’m forever trying to bridge this knowledge gap, but that’s hard when RSS feeds are still so clunky to learn to use compared to the Web and e-mail.
Here’s what I mean:
Problem #1: Yet another piece of software is needed. Right now, you must get and install feed reader software in order to subscribe to and read RSS feeds. Most people (even tech-friendly people) loathe having to install yet another application.
Solution: Browser integration. Whenever the major Web browsers (Microsoft, AOL, Netscape, etc.) finally get around to integrating feed readers into their basic browser, I think RSS will really take off at that point. OR: Some smart critter could develop a third-party plug in (along the lines of the Google toolbar). OR: Some smart developer could create a stand-alone application that doesn’t force you to look at the ugly XML code just right-click on the button to subscribe (like Newsgator does, see below).
Problem #2: Cryptic buttons I’ve grown to despise those tiny XML and RSS buttons. Unless you already know what an RSS feed is, why would you click on one of those?
Suggestion: Don’t expect that everyone knows what an RSS feed is and how to use it. I wish more online publishers who offer RSS feeds would go to the trouble of adding even a little bit of text for clarification, like “Get our news without clogging your e-mail in-box.” Or maybe even a publish a brief “What is RSS?” page on your site.
On my home page, I’ve simply noted “Get CONTENTIOUS by RSS feed” a brief but apparently effective bit of implied information.
Problem #3: Scary-looking code. Right now, if you click on one of those cryptic little orange XML buttons, you get what looks like, to most people, utter garbage. Seriously someone who doesn’t know what RSS is would think they just did something very, very wrong!
One solution: In lieu of making the technical process of subscribing to an RSS feed less ugly, I’ve taken the approach of including a visible comment at the top of the XML file for my RSS feed. This should at least be some help for RSS newbies, and the XML still validates. (More on how to comment in XML.)
Another solution: The feed reader NewsGator, which integrates with MS Outlook, allows you to simply right-click on an XML or RSS button that links to a feed page. One of the options on the drop-down menu that pops up is “Subscribe in Newsgator.” That’s certainly less intimidating than looking at ugly XML code. Hopefully, when somebody finally integrates a feed reader into a major Web browser, subscribing to feeds will be at least that easy.