The recent announcement of the impending shutdown of Google Reader has generated a lot of questions about RSS and has revealed a great deal of confusion. What is RSS? Why should you care about RSS? What is the future of RSS now that Google Reader is apparently one of the walking dead? What can/should you do about it? I will try to answer those questions without causing your eyes to glaze over!
What Is RSS?
RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. Its purpose is to provide a way for those seeking content to have that content delivered to them instead of them having to go look for it. In other words, assume you did a Google search for “small business website” and found this blog. Naturally, you’d be dazzled by the quality of the content contained herein and would want to be informed whenever anything new was posted! 🙂 Subscribing to the site’s RSS feed means that a notice of any new content will be delivered to you rather than you having to remember to visit the site again on a regular basis.
The ubiquitous RSS icon shown above is displayed on most blogs and websites. Its purpose is to alert visitors that an RSS feed is available. WordPress provides a content RSS feed out of the box so even if the icon is not displayed, you can typically access the RSS feed of a WordPress site by simply using the default feed address.
Subscribing to your RSS feed provides the subscriber a connection to your site’s content. You can think of the RSS feed as a “content outlet” that visitors can plug into in order to consume your content. The concept is similar to an electrical outlet that you plug into to consume electricity except that any number of people can plug into your RSS “outlet” simultaneously.
Should I Only Send Excerpts?
In WordPress, you have the option to send your content out as summaries (aka excerpts) or the full content. In other words, you can specify whether the RSS subscriber will receive the entire post or just a short teaser. To set this option, go to Settings | Reading and check the appropriate radio button in the section labeled “For each article in a feed, show”.
If you choose to send excerpts, you can define them in one of two ways: insert a “more” tag in the post where you want the excerpt to end, or craft an excerpt in the Excerpt box below the editor. The Excerpt box is hidden by default so if you want to use it, you’ll need to make it visible if it’s not already visible. To do so, click the Screen Options tab at the upper right of the editor page. That will reveal a bunch of checkboxes one of which will be labeled “Excerpt”. Check that box and the Excerpt box will appear below the editor. The position will vary depending on what other plugins have put below the editor. If you want the Excerpt directly below the editor window, simply drag and drop it.
Whether you should send excerpts or the full content depends on what you want your reader to do. In most cases, you want them to visit your site to see other content, see your ads, if any, and otherwise interact with your site. In that case, sending an excerpt would be the correct choice.
If, however, you send them the full content, they have no incentive to visit your site. Unless they happen to click a link in the content that takes them back to your site, they will simply read the content and go on about their day.
So, What About Google Reader?
Google Reader is one of many available RSS reading applications. The purpose of an RSS reader is to subscribe to RSS feeds and then organize them to make it easier and more efficient to consume the content from multiple feeds. The RSS reader receives the content from all the subscribed feeds so you don’t have to visit all those sites to find new content. The content is delivered to your RSS reader, organized and presented to you in an easy-to-read format. You can then browse through the content and pick which of it you want to pursue further.
Google Reader is one of the more popular RSS readers and has a very large user base. Despite that, Google has announced that Google Reader will no longer be available after July 1, 2013. This has fans of Google Reader in an uproar and has pundits declaring the death of RSS along with Google Reader. The former is understandable. The latter is probably a bit over the top.
RSS has been around a long time and will likely continue to exist for the foreseeable future. It has many uses for automated syndication of content aside from providing fodder for the various RSS readers. For example, I have a corporate client which has three separate blogs regularly publishing content. They have an additional blog which uses an RSS plugin to aggregate all this content into one blog so that those interested in more than one of the individual blogs can visit the “hub” site and see the content from all three in one place. The relieves the content authors of the burden of having to post their articles in the original blog and in the aggregator blog.
What Do I Do Now?
So, it seems to me that the death of RSS is unlikely. That said, what should you be doing about RSS?
Looking at it from a site owner’s standpoint, RSS is not the most desirable way for visitors to subscribe to your content. It’s better than nothing, but has many drawbacks. For one thing, you have no way to communicate with your subscribers aside from posting to your site. For another, you don’t know how many subscribers you have unless you’re using a service like Feedburner which, by the way, is another Google-owned property rumored to be on the chopping block. While Feedburner can tell you how many subscribers you have, you can’t contact them directly if they are RSS subscribers. Feedburner does provide the option to subscribe via email, which is a different story.
What the brouhaha about Google Reader does is bring back to the forefront the issue of RSS vs. email subscribers. From the above it should be clear that getting visitors to subscribe via email is much preferable to RSS subscriptions. While it is possible for people to subscribe by email via Feedburner, again, the future of Feedburner is very much in doubt and Feedburner does not provide the level of functionality that a true autoresponder service such as AWeber provides. If you’re serious about having a mailing list and communicating with your subscribers, AWeber or another autoresponder service is the way to go.
If you have questions about autoresponders or need help getting set up, we have worked with most of the major ones and can assist you with setting up your site to collect contact information and build an email list. Feel free to leave a message in the chatbox on the lower right of the site, or via our contact page.