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Goodbye RSS, Please Come Back

Written by on March 14, 2013

Late last night, Google announced something that many have feared for a while. They are shutting down Google Reader and permanently closing it by July 1, 2013.

We launched Google Reader in 2005 in an effort to make it easy for people to discover and keep tabs on their favorite websites. While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined. So, on July 1, 2013, we will retire Google Reader. Users and developers interested in RSS alternatives can export their data, including their subscriptions, with Google Takeout over the course of the next four months.

None of this really comes as a surprise as there have been many signs telling us that Google was moving away from RSS. Just as a simple example, look at the Google Reader's twitter profile. It completely stopped posting messages on November 5, 2011.

Another example is Feedburner. During Google's last 'spring cleaning', In late-September, 2012 they announced that they were shutting down Adsense For Feeds:

AdSense for Feeds was designed to help publishers earn revenue from their content by placing ads on their RSS feeds. Starting October 2, we'll begin to retire this feature-and on December 3 we'll close it. Publishers can continue to use FeedBurner URLs powered by Google, so they won't need to redirect subscribers to different URLs.

Most people never realized the significance of this. Adsense for Feeds is the same as Feedburner. It's not a feature of Feedburner. It is actually the internal name for the entire Feedburner product line.

Another way you can see this is that the Feedburner blog, where Google announced all the new features in Feedburner, is actually called "Adsense for Feeds". And this blog was shut down in July last year after having been quiet since 2010, meaning that there is no longer any way for Google to announce new updates to Feedburner.

In other words, Feedburner too is already dead. Google just hasn't switched off all the lights yet.

So, it's painfully obvious what is going to happen next. Google Reader will go away, followed by the remaining elements of Feedburner ... and with that, Google will have move completely away from the world of RSS.

And with this, I'm saddened to write, we are also looking at the end of RSS. If we look at the trend curves, RSS is in decline and there is nothing indicating that it will somehow have a triumphant return to it's former days of glory ... partly because it was never there to begin with. And with Google Reader and Feedburner closing, This is likely to be the death blow to RSS that it cannot recover from.

The problem here is that there are no true alternatives to RSS. RSS served a purpose unlike any other channel. It provided people with highly focused categorized view of selected sources, outperforming any other channel by a mile in terms of value.

Sure, you can follow the same blogs on Twitter and Facebook, but it will be filled with noise, and you can't do proper search within your sources. Here for instance are the feeds I subscribe to:

Notice how the sidebar lists all the new articles that I haven't seen yet, neatly categorized into groups just the way I want them.

And when I click on any of these groups, I get this wonderful experience of highly focused content, just the way I want it.

And yes, you can still do this. The screenshots above is from my favorite tool (after Flipboard), which is Feedly ... who last night announced that they will be ready to take over from Google Reader.

Another thing that most people don't realize is that RSS is the only protocol to support subscription based content, and as such could be the best tool for newspapers to embrace.

On this site, for instance, I offer a special personalized feed to all my Plus subscribers. Allowing you to read the full Plus articles in whatever newsreader you prefer (including Flipboard). I can't do that with any of the social channels, and this can only be done with RSS.

RSS also allows password protected content (like content behind a paywall), although most news readers never implemented it (including Google Reader).

Lack of support from the publishers also meant that RSS never become as useful as it should have been. Instead, the big publishers opted to 'partner with select channels' which is both costly and extremely limiting. For instance, the New York Times has partnered with Flipboard to allow people to read subscription based content.

But if both Flipboard and the New York Times had implemented RSS correctly, the New York Times could have done this without having to partner with anyone ... and if other news readers had implemented RSS correctly too you would have been able to use those channels as well, instead of being limited to only one app.

Think about how much money that would have saved the New York Times, and how much more flexible that would have been.

I'm not saying that RSS is perfect. It drastically lacks any form of two-way communication. It doesn't allow integration with payment systems, and it completely lacks the necessary flexibility in terms of embedded and interactive content.

Not to mention that the RSS protocol hasn't been updated since 2002, 11 years ago. Sure we also have ATOM, but that isn't much better.

So, RSS is dead. It's terrible to see it go because the concept could have made everything so much better. But I don't see how it can recover from the closure of Google Reader and Feedburner. The remaining RSS players and the lack of interest in the market are all pointing to its eventual demise.

What about the future?

Back in August I wrote "What Comes After Facebook? The Future of Social Media", in which I highlight the inherent problems with the closed ecosystems of social media, and why that is likely to change. If you haven't read it, I highly suggest that you do, because this has a lot to do with the concept of RSS as well.

And in the long term this is where we are heading. All the trends point in this direction, despite the fact that the social channels are becoming ever more closed and proprietary every day.

But, also in the long term, killing RSS might actually be the best thing that ever happened.

While the concept of RSS is great, it is also clear that it will never be more than what it is today. A rather outdated publishing protocol that is desperately out of tune with the times.

RSS has remained static for 11 years while the rest of the digital world has undergone tremendous changes. But because it was there, nobody has thought about creating its replacement.

Now that RSS is about to die all that might change. This might be triggering point that will get entrepreneurs to think up the future communication protocol. One that, unlike RSS, combines broadcasting content with communication between people ... and the communication of data.

In the short term, the demise of RSS is a disaster. But in the long term it is likely to be the best thing that ever happened. RSS was keeping us back, and it clearly wasn't going anywhere.

With RSS out of the way, we might finally see some real innovation. Innovation that combines all the elements of the new world of media, instead of just being about broadcasting pieces of static content.

And this is exactly the future that I wrote about in "What Comes After Facebook? The Future of Social Media."

Think of it like this. What if print newspapers (which are just as static as RSS) were to completely disappear tomorrow. What would happen?

Well, in the short term, the entire publishing industry would collapse and millions of people would be screaming in anguish (just like the reaction we are seeing to the demise of RSS). But if we no longer had print to worry about, the future of digital publishing would suddenly look much, much better.

And the same is likely to be true for RSS.

Solutions for the short term

The future has yet to come, and the next three years are going be painful if you rely on RSS. For instance, I have about 7.000 RSS subscribers, most of which is likely to use Google Reader in some form or fashion. When Google closes Reader in July, it's unlikely that my RSS readers will find an alternative in time. Some might, but most probably won't.

So what can you do?

There are three short term solutions. Alternative Readers, Social channels, and Newsletters.

Alternative readers

As for alternative readers, you can try to guide people to other RSS readers and that way keep at least some of your RSS subscribers intact.

The best tool out there, by far, is Feedly. It's works across devices (web, desktop, iPhone/iPad, Android apps), and it looks about a million times better than Google Reader ... and I highly recommend it.

Other tools are Flipboard, but without Google Reader their RSS support is terrible. We will have to see if this changes over the next couple of months.

And if you are technically inclined, we have NewsBlur. It's a very cool and fully featured RSS reader. But it doesn't have the nice magazine type feel of Feedly. If you are a techy, you will love it. If not, well...

There are also a ton of other RSS readers, but what you want is something that works across devices and in the cloud, which limits your options dramatically.

Social channels

Another option, which you should definitely do, is to create social accounts specifically for your site. This is something I have been doing for a long time.

For instance, on Google+ you can:

  • Follow me via +Thomas Baekdal and get everything
  • Follow +Baekdal and get only the updates for the articles I write.

On Twitter you can:

On Facebook, you can:

And if you are a publisher or a brand with a blog, you should definitely do this. Just keep in mind that your article feeds are likely to have far fewer followers. For instance, @baekdalarticles has less than 1/10th the followers than @baekdal.

Also, on Twitter and Facebook you are limited to having your content show up next to all other content, instead of being categorized as with RSS. So your posts are less likely to be seen.

Google+ is slightly different because of how Google has implemented 'Circles'. This effectively means that people could categorize the sites they care about just like they categorized RSS feeds in Google Reader.

Focusing on Google+ just became even more exciting (which is probably also one of the reasons why Google is dropping Reader).

Newsletters / Digests

Another solution is to move to emai,l and this has several other benefits as well. You might not want to do real newsletters, but merely do weekly digests.

The advantage is email is that it is a much more personal and upfront solution, which for many mean creating a much more loyal group of readers.

The disadvantage is that, unlike RSS, people are not going to suddenly subscribe to hundreds email digest from every single blog they like. For instance, I subscribe to about 350 RSS feeds, and there is no way I'm going to fill up my inbox with the same amount of email digests.

Email newsletters or digests are incredibly useful and valuable, but it doesn't have the same scale as RSS.

Overall though, the demise of RSS means you now have to work even harder to connect with people. The problem with both the social channels and newsletters is that they require more legwork than the anonymous and passive connection we got with RSS.

With an RSS feed, people could subscribe to it without worrying about what others might think, and without identifying you to the owner of the sites you followed. With social channels and newsletters, you have to identify yourself. Depending on your type of site, that is a limiting factor.

None of this is perfect and I hate to see Google Reader go. But in the long run, the future has just begun.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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