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Friday, August 07, 2009

RSS: A Stalled Standard, But "Not Dead Yet"?

Blog and RSS advocates are devoted to the core. Only a couple of years ago, as so many factors appeared to converge to make feed readers the geek's information overload management tool of choice, the future seemed limitless. It only seemed fitting that Google acquired Feedburner.

The difference between RSS and old ways of opting in, though, is surely the issue of "breakout". Did RSS really ever cross the chasm from insider adoption out to being a mainstream technology? Nope.

Compare how things used to be with email. Even if you were a relatively unknown newsletter publisher, you could eventually build up your list to 10,000, 20,000, or more -- just through opt-in (not even counting swaps and "JV's"). Popular lists reached 200,000, and more, and those were just pinging companions to a popular content site.

RSS subscription worked differently. People had relatively strong feelings about how many feeds they'd sign up for, if they bothered at all. And suddenly, there was a host of other ways to find the content you loved, anyway -- Twitter, Techmeme, Digg, Sphinn, email, Facebook, etc. -- so even a lot of geeks curtailed their RSS habit.

Don't get me wrong, lots of people use it differently, but as adoption waned, it seemed less important to us here to bother displaying a "subscribe to feed" logo, and so forth. We started tweeting, Sphinning, etc., and hoping others would too.

Lee Odden over at TopRank Blog takes a slightly different view. Lee just posted the Top SEM and SEO Blogs list, in order of RSS subscription. In principle, I feel strongly about subscription, but I notice that many good blogs have only in the low thousands of subscribers. I asked Lee whether it was still worth paying attention to RSS. Here's what he thinks:

"Looking at the RSS subscriber counts for the top 10-20 blogs doesn't make it seem like RSS is dead just yet. For example, Search Engine Land has 9,500 followers on Twitter, and 40,909 RSS subscribers as reported by Feedburner.

"Twitter may be shiny and popular but not exclusive of RSS content consumption. Personally, I like to share both metrics on our blog. But that's just me.

"The AdAge list considers more variables and that sort of thing is likely to be a much better qualification of what's a 'top' list. In the end I think that decision is really up to the individual and lists are just puffery. There, I said it."

Well said, Lee.

Still, the fact that the top sites in the search marketing industry "only" have around 40,000 RSS subscribers despite their large numbers of daily articles and channels, shows that RSS subscription reaches its limits a lot sooner than email used to back in the day. It's a different animal. I tend to agree with Lee, in the sense that, as one of Seth Godin's all-time classic posts explains, Small is the New Big. You can choose between a million weak ties, or a few thousand strong ones. The strong ones are meaningful. They translate into real conversation and real connections. And best of all, they aren't spam. It's probably fitting, then, that Godin's blog currently sits at #3 on the Ad Age Power 150. And Search Engine Land sits pretty at #1.

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