Subscription options and the failed promise of RSS

In the spirit of openness, and given that I am supposed to be writing more about the web, I have decided to write about any changes I make to the design of this website. Like almost any actively maintained website, the design will probably never be finished as such. It will evolve over time.

The major addition I have made since the original launch of this website is the addition of a small selection of subscription options.

Subscription options

RSS feed icon

When I first launched this new website in December, I did not actively publicise the RSS feed anywhere (although it was still autodiscoverable). I had put some thought into how important RSS is these days, and I came to the conclusion that it is much less relevant than it was five or ten years ago.

It is a shame, but RSS never quite lived up to the hope. A clunky but concerted effort to rebrand it as “really simple syndication” failed to make it more accessible to non-geeks. It fooled no-one. RSS (which really stands for RDF Site Summary) is, now perhaps more than ever, a fringe function of the web.

When browsers began to remove their RSS functionality (remember when Firefox gave an RSS icon pride of place in the address bar?), it seemed like a nail in the coffin. It was an admission that the vast majority of users just don’t care about RSS feeds.

Looking at some other websites, I am sure RSS is less prominent today than it would have been five or ten years ago. Many websites bizarrely house the links to RSS feeds in a ‘social’ menu containing links to Facebook pages and Twitter accounts.

Personally, I find RSS a hugely useful tool. But I know that it is a tool used almost exclusively by geeks. So I figured that anyone who wanted to subscribe to my new RSS feed would work out easily enough for themselves how to do it. Those that didn’t want to subscribe to it would probably only be alienated or confused by it. So I decided not to publicise it.

Legacy subscribers

Then I realised that I probably made the wrong decision. After relaunching this website, I decided to publish posts at my old blogs to direct readers to my new home.

When I did that, this website got dozens and dozens of referrals from Google Reader. These RSS users were all visiting my website, but I wasn’t letting them know about my new RSS feed. Whoops.

This is another big con to add to the big list of pros and cons of deciding to close down my old blogs and start a new one. There are potentially dozens of people who read my old blogs, and might be interested in what I am currently writing about, but aren’t subscribed to my new website.

What is the right approach? Should I set up redirects? I am not sure. It feels a bit wrong. After all, I was the one that decided on a fresh start. That surely means taking the hit of potentially losing my loyal readers who didn’t ask for a fresh start. Is a doctorvee subscriber likely to be miffed at being automatically subscribed to this website?

RSS, or email subscriptions?

Coincidentally, this week I was reading Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox and I thought to myself, “why am I not subscribed to the RSS feed for this?” So I went hunting for one. I hunted and hunted. Funny for a usability expert to manage to hide his RSS feed so well.

So well hidden, in fact, that it doesn’t exist. Jakob Nielsen has no RSS feed. He runs an email subscription list instead.

Spam (2848174803)

I am not a big fan of email full stop. I am certainly not a big fan of volunteering my email address to organisations. And I am definitely opposed to email newsletters. It’s just posh spam.

I sign up to email newsletters grudgingly. Jakob Nielsen is an important person to read, so I signed up.

Many people don’t understand RSS

But that’s just me. I know that most people don’t use the web in the same way we geeks do.

Jakob Nielsen must have a reason for eschewing RSS feeds. Having done a bit of digging, it appears as though Mr Nielsen’s views on RSS are fairly elusive. He has not ever said very much about RSS. But I can well imagine what the problem is.

The problem is that, with the exception of geeks, people just don’t get it. I am constantly having to explain to people what RSS is. Usually they either don’t understand it or don’t see the point of it. A cheesy rebrand to call it “simple” wasn’t enough to actually make it simple.

But people get email. Most people find the concept of email subscriptions much more easy to get their head around.

Adding subscription options

So I have decided to add an email subscription for this blog, alongside links to the RSS feeds. They are available on the Subscribe page, which is now in the main navigation menu.

I have decided against adding them to the sidebar or any other prominent location. That would violate my ‘less is more’ principle. I will avoid adding any cruft to the sidebar. Given the points I have made about RSS above, I don’t think it is important enough to add it there.

Still, what was I thinking by not including them at all?

Do you disagree?

I would be interested to know what others in the web community think about how to publicise RSS. Have I taken the wrong approach? Am I incorrect to hide them away? Or should we still be pushing to convert more people to the undoubted usefulness of RSS feeds?

5 comments

  1. If RSS stopped working I’m pretty sure I’d give up on the internet. I live in my Google Reader window (and gReader on my phone).
    I had no problem auto-discovering the feeds here, but there have been plenty of sites where there’s been no RSS, or it’s been too difficult to find. In that case I give up, never to return.

    I hate email subscriptions, particularly if they’re the “Hi, new post today” type.

  2. I’m a constant Google Reader user too; I wouldn’t remember to check all the websites I’m interested in without their RSS feeds, and I suspect I’d end up not reading email subscriptions. Plus the availability of feeds for Instagram accounts mean I don’t have to join it!

  3. Thanks for the comments. Glad to see there is still some love for RSS out there.

    I rely on it heavily too, but I think less so for personal blogs and the like. For me, it’s really important for work purposes, and for keeping up with motorsport news.

  4. I heavily depend on RSS for my daily dose of news and blogs. The first thing I did after arriving to your new site (via the old’s RSS feed) was to look for the RSS icon or some link to the feed. It was easy for Google Reader to figure out the right address automatically but, as you said, I knew what I was looking for in the first place.

    I’d never thought about redirecting RSS as an ‘automatic subscription’. But then the use case I was thinking about when I routed my blogs through Feedburner was the possibility of moving them somewhere else, not a fresh start…

  5. Amusingly, Opera 11 still has a big RSS button on the address bar. I have to admit I’ve only ever used RSS feeds to check my blog’s RSS function (by the time I might have had a use for RSS, Twitter had turned up to do the same job). Of course, this doesn’t help when your “followed” list is too long to read everything the people you follow say, hence why it’s taken me so long to find the new site…

    I avoid using email newsletters too, where sites are polite enough to allow it. Still, good to know the option exists for those people who prefer them.

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