Blogonomics: RSS Redux

March 12, 2009

It’s been 17 months since I published my RSS manifesto, arguing strongly that everybody should serve up full RSS feeds, and nothing since then has changed my mind. But Seeking Alpha’s David Jackson leaves me a comment today, as a follow-up to another comment he posted yesterday, saying that RSS has basically been a failure, and asking "what will make APIs different".

David has a peculiar criterion for success: he seems to think that RSS was meant to be something which lots of people would adopt, and which would generate just as much money, through ads in full RSS feeds, as traditional display ads generate on websites.

Clearly that hasn’t happened. But I was certainly never someone who thought that would happen, and I don’t know anybody else who thought along those lines either.

Here’s David:

If judged by the degree of adoption outside the tech community, RSS has generally been a failure. Perhaps the reason is that readers wanted intelligent aggregation: they want to know which topics are important, and which articles to read on those topics. RSS couldn’t do that, because most RSS readers force the user to browse all the subscribed-to RSS feeds and piece together any themes for themselves.
The winning model turned out to be Techmeme, which does exactly that: it tells me which topics are hot and which articles to read on them. Here at Seeking Alpha, we’ve followed a similar model with our home page: we’ve moved away from a "stream of content" to intelligent clustering of articles by "story".
And what happened to RSS monetization? Feedburner offered ads in RSS, but nobody reported that they made any real money from them.
So the question is: How are APIs different from RSS?

There’s a lot to unpack here. Firstly, the criterion for success of RSS should most emphatically not be "the degree of adoption outside the tech community". There are lots of other criteria which make a lot more sense, but the most simple would probably be just "does serving up full RSS mean that you’re more successful/profitable than if you don’t". And I think the answer there is yes, for reasons which I went into in some depth 17 months ago.

Simply put, the community of RSS users might be small, but it’s vital. If you’re running a content website, you desperately want those readers, because they’re the people who will drive you lots of traffic.

David is quite right that most readers on the internet don’t particularly want to go to the trouble of curating and editing their own collection of RSS feeds: they want editors, at places like Techmeme, to do that for them. And that’s exactly how APIs differ from RSS: using APIs, anybody can put together a website of their own, and publish a range of content from around the internet. With RSS, you’re confined to reading others’ material: you can’t then turn around and publish it yourself. Not unless you like facing a lot of cease-and-desist letters, anyway.

As for RSS monetization, RSS has always been a means to an end. No one has ever got rich from RSS ad revenues — but no one ever expected to, either. The point of RSS is as a tool to drive revenues elsewhere. If you serve up full RSS, then more people will visit your website, and you’ll make more money from selling ads on that website.

What’s more, there’s an easy way to demonstrate this. Right now, Seeking Alpha truncates all of its RSS feeds, making them much less useful than they should be. So go ahead, David, and switch them all to full feeds, and see what happens. I’ll bet your website traffic will grow and not shrink. Why not give it a go?

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