Why (and How) to Monitor RSS Feeds in 2018
Rich Site Summary (RSS), as a web technology, has been around since the turn of the last century. But is it still relevant in 2018, is it going to stay around for much longer, and how can it still be useful in today’s online landscape? Our answers to these questions are yes, yes, and read on to find out.
The end is near! Or is it?
Let’s start with a (very) brief explanation of the concept. RSS is a means of structuring online content in a standardized, machine-readable feed, typically used by websites to publish frequently updated information, such as the contents and metadata of recently published stories on a blog or news outlet.
Traditionally, users could tap into these feeds via RSS readers (also known as news aggregators) and stay updated on new content being published by their favorite websites. However, with the rise of social media in the last decade, internet users at large have found a new way to follow publications they’re interested in, and RSS usage has been in steady decline accordingly.
Every once in a while a pundit will declare that RSS is dead, buried, gone beyond return, bought the farm, etc. – here’s an example from 2016. But is it really so?
Meanwhile Feedly, possibly the world’s most popular RSS reader, showed impressive growth in its user base between 2013 and 2015; and as late as December 2017, 80% of about 15000 respondents to an online survey on the Verge reported that they are still using an RSS reader, with 68% defining their usage as “religious”.
While the first stat can be explained by Google retiring its own RSS reader at the same time, causing users to flock to Feedly, and the second by a biased survey group – i.e., people who clicked on an article about RSS readers on the Verge – the fact remains that RSS lives on.
We can attest to this from our own experience: many of our users still choose RSS as their format to consume structured web data feeds; in fact, we see a lot of people coming to our service specifically because they want to create custom RSS feeds for content curation or monitoring.
What’s going on? Is RSS an obsolete technology on its last breaths, or is it still very much alive and kicking? Examining the typical use cases of RSS in 2018 reveals that despite losing much of its mainstream appeal, RSS still has an important role to play in the way content is aggregated, shared and consumed on the web.
RSS vs social media
If in the early 2000s RSS news aggregators were one of the major ways regular readers would keep up with publications, it’s safe to say the majority of today’s online content consumers have switched to other platforms. Mostly these would be social media websites, which have become an omnipresent force in average internet user’s life – taking up more than two hours of his or her time every single day.
In other words, when people’s Facebook and Twitter feeds are already dominated by content from media outlets and blogs, they will be much less inclined to seek out more of the same via RSS readers. Facebook and Twitter are very popular services (in case you haven’t heard), so naturally one would assume the prospects for RSS are quite bleak indeed.
Why RSS still matters
However, it’s important to note that the above state of affairs is neither all-encompassing nor necessarily permanent. Many still use RSS readers for the unique advantages they offer over social media feeds: they are transparent, don’t rely on algorithms that could be susceptible to manipulation, and suffer from less of the infamous filter bubble.
Another reason not to eulogize RSS just yet is Facebook’s explicit announcement that it will prioritize user-generated content over news stories. If the other major social networks follow suit, social media might cease to be the go-to place for people to get their news, leading them back to the alternatives of yonder.
But even if consumer tastes remain completely unchanged and RSS fails to regain its former broad appeal, it’s still not going anywhere. The reason is that RSS is an invaluable tool for developers, and a vital component in web monitoring, news aggregation and content curation systems.
How modern developers use RSS
An RSS feed is structured, standardized and machine-readable. It can be integrated into any API or code, and almost any website that’s built around textual content can be translated into custom RSS.
All of these factors make RSS a perfect choice for content monitoring, curation and aggregation. This could include anything from a website widget that presents relevant industry news, to sophisticated media monitoring tools that rely on automated scanning and analysis of hundreds and thousands of news stories. In all these cases, developers need a way to deal with the writhing mass of web content as a structured data feed – and RSS, along with JSON, remains a prime choice for doing so.
News aggregation tools that rely on social media APIs (such as Twitter for Websites) typically fail to provide solutions for these scenarios. Developers are often wary of their reliance on proprietary and frequently changing APIs, and their tendency to focus on a specific user’s feed rather than providing a broad picture of the online discussion. Problems can also arise around personalization algorithms, which add an air of uncertainty as to what content will actually be presented to the end user. Hence, developers choose to fall back on trusty old Rich Site Summary.
It’s true that less people are using RSS as their “subscribe” button of choice for a particular website; but rather than disappearing, the focus of RSS has shifted to developers leveraging customized RSS feeds in order to aggregate content from a large number of sources, organizing it by a category or set of keywords, and then using it for further machine-based analysis or as a news feed presented to their users.
Don’t send RSS out to pasture quite yet
In summary – developers still need (and like) RSS, and long as this is the case it’s likely to stick around. On our end we can say this is corroborated by our conversations with Webhose.io users, who still see major value in their ability to access news, online discussions, reviews or e-commerce product pages in the form of frequently updated RSS feeds. We’re happy to oblige!
Excited about rekindling your love for RSS? You can read a nice example of creating a custom RSS feed for content monitoring, or start tapping into structured web content by opening a free Webhose.io account.