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September 11, 2006

RSS: When Nobody Knows Your Name

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In Seth Godin’s They didn’t get the memo post he asserts that 88 percent of users have never heard of RSS. Can that really be true? If so, I want to congratulate RSS on its successful stealth-like behavior, seamlessly working its way into our everyday lives without us being any the wiser. That’s a pretty cool accomplishment.

I’d love to sit down with the 88 percent of people who say they don’t know what RSS is and dig out what they really do know. They probably know more than they think. In fact, I bet if I asked them what the “Subscribe with Bloglines” or Google Reader buttons on the Bruce Clay blog homepage did they could tell me, though I bet the two “Syndicate this site” links scare them half to death.

I think Seth’s statistics shows there’s a vast difference between what users see and what they take in. Even the most novice of searchers must have at least seen RSS. It’s everywhere.

Imagine a searcher who is stuck at work and wants to read some of Monday’s top headlines. They go to Ask.com and do a search for “CNN”. What shows up? CNN’s RSS feed with their three latest stories. The searcher sees something that interests him, clicks on a title and is directed to the CNN homepage to finish reading the article. Right there the user has used RSS.

Or maybe he didn’t use Ask. Maybe he used Google and signed up for a news alert. Or performed a Yahoo! query and clicked on the news links at the top of the SERP. They are all examples of RSS in action and even the most inexperienced users have seen them and likely taken advantage of the time saved in clicks.

I could understand if a user was unable to define or explain RSS, but never having heard of it? How is that possible? How did RSS become mainstream without anyone even realizing?

Well, first they geeked it out and then they made it accessible.

I don’t know if there’s a motto for this big Web 2.0 craze but if there’s not, I have one: Geek it and they will come. Genius, right? Absolutely, and it’s exactly what RSS did.

RSS was first picked up by our resident geeks. They loved it, created the buzz and started using it on their own blogs and sites. It was baked into browsers like Flock and Firefox, adopted by iTunes and then given a huge thumbs-up by the search engines. Pretty soon there was Bloglines, Google Reader, Yahoo! Reader, News Gator and a million other feed aggregators. The geeks were happy.

Then it was time to make RSS a way of life for the every day user. Ask implemented their RSS Smart Answers and GYM adopted news alerts. There were brain-dead-easy (and pretty) Subscribe buttons so users could easily subscribe to feeds even if they didn’t realize that’s what they were doing. RSS has permeated users’ daily lives so completely that many haven’t even realized it yet.

I remember a Jupiter Research study that came out that a while back that said RSS Adoption Not Really That Simple. Well, I think we’re on the way to making it that simple.

Should we be concerned that users don’t have a name for the technology they use everyday? No, I don’t think so. RSS is becomingly increasingly more visible. They may not know the name RSS today, but they’ll learn it over time.

If anything, I think it proves how seamlessly RSS fits into our lives and makes us wonder what we ever did without it. I know that my job would be a lot less fun and a lot more work without RSS. I remember the day my Bloglines broke and I was not amused.

RSS is like the CIA. Only its failures are known.

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