Content Producers Are Hit and Miss With RSS

RSS (define) is the preferred blog content delivery method. But that’s just a superficial description of it. It has a long list of practical applications. True, the vast majority of blogs use RSS. If they don’t, it’s probably by mistake. If blogs had never materialized, however, RSS would still have a place in SEM (define) and Web development.

But due to RSS’s inextricable association to blogging, Web developers are slow to deploy the technology, explain its benefit to users, and fully exploit its potential.

Integration and Deployment

Many Webmasters think they don’t have the right sort of content or setup to offer RSS-based content delivery. Too many business owners believe if they aren’t writing regular, frequent articles about their core business topic, RSS has nothing to offer.

That philosophy is so wrong. When clients ask me to explain RSS publishing in a sentence, I say it’s this decade’s answer to business-to-consumer (B2C) e-mail; a backhanded compliment to e-mail marketing, I admit, but it snaps them into the frame of mind required to understand what RSS can mean for them.

Beyond blog-post dissemination, RSS works well with many different forms of content distribution. A few possibilities:

  • Blog and article comments. Many readers glean more information from the long conversation happening in blog and article comments than in the articles themselves.
  • Errata sheets. Paper publishers, whether newspaper, magazine, or print, should consider publishing errors and omissions via RSS. Some publishers would argue against the active, pull-based publication of product flaws, but this is old-world thinking. Someone will control the message, and for the long-term health of the brand it should be the original publisher. It shows respect for the audience and builds loyalty in the long term. It’s also a natural addition to the companion sites most books and periodicals already offer.
  • Shipment tracking. Inform customers about their shipment at each hop without forcing them to log in to your shipping carrier’s site and without filling their inbox.
  • Newly released and sale items. Inform existing customers of new and sale products, again without clogging their inboxes.
  • Updated user agreements, policies, and practices. Are you changing the way you handle consumer data or how you do business? Allow customers and clients the ability to be informed immediately.

In short, any information you can e-mail to a specific site visitor should also be offered via an RSS feed.

Education and Explanation

An entire industry has sprung up around search because it’s currently the most accurate consumer starting point for the vast majority of information retrieval. People understand it. Contrast that with RSS. It’s no surprise a Google query for “what’s this?” brings up Wikipedia’s definition of RSS in the top spot. Yet as a starting point for information retrieval, well-conceived RSS feeds — when understood by consumers — are more targeted, direct, and accurate for information delivery.

RSS evangelism needs far more than “What’s this?” buttons to spread the gospel. Sites need screen shots on Web pages and more enticing copy to explain exactly how RSS can benefit users. Contrast an orange XML button and its sibling “What’s This?” link with questions like the following in their ability to explain the benefits of subscribing to an RSS feed:

  • Would you like to read other reviews of this product as they appear?
  • Would you like to know when we release the new version of this device?
  • Do you want to know when new accessories in this product line become available?

Publicizing RSS Feeds

Beyond the now-familiar orange buttons on nearly every page of an RSS-cabable site, your existing e-mail customer list is one of the best ways to explain and publicize RSS feeds. When users understand RSS’s flexibility and how it can benefit them, you’ll see feed-generated visits grow steadily.

Let’s not forget search traffic. Recently, I performed a small, unscientific experiment in which I selected and tracked three different articles published by major online sources. One was an editorial by a popular political columnist. One was a press release from a major manufacturer about a new subsidiary. One was an article on careers from a major business magazine. All three offered RSS feeds for niche subjects within their sites, which is how I found them in the first place.

I tracked the articles for two weeks. Within a few hours of their publication, all three articles had references pointing to them. But after 14 days, Google Blog Search and Technorati had indexed only one of the three original articles. This means the other two were giving their search traffic away.

Though all three publishers understand RSS implementation, only one understands the rudiments of publicizing RSS. Because of this experiment, as well as discussions with business owners and Web developers, I believe very few large sites understand the need to submit new feeds and to ping multiple RSS-fed engines when publishing new material.

RSS is a valuable tool for content publishers, and it has tremendous potential to augment Web traffic through search engines, social tagging sites, and direct newsreader traffic. But until publishers master the deployment possibilities, educational requirements, and publicizing potential, RSS benefits will continue to elude them.

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