RSS: What It Is and Why You Must Care

The average consumer has a cell phone that doubles as a camera, a PDA with more memory than last year’s PC and a portable music player with enough songs to make any DJ jealous. But when it comes to how consumers get their news, they may as well be waiting for the Pony Express.

Only 5 percent of Americans have caught on to a free, easy-to-use technology that will permanently change how people get information online. That technology is Really Simple Syndication, or RSS. It works by pulling feeds from Web sites and blogs, making new content available as it’s posted. Underlying RSS is Extensible Markup Language (XML), whose main purpose is to facilitate the sharing of structured text, data and information across the Internet.

Though its explanation sounds a little complex, putting RSS to daily use is not. You can take advantage of this technology in numerous ways, the most common being plug-in (Pluck, Sage) and Web-based (Bloglines, Yahoo) aggregators. Both use existing Web browsers to alert users to new content via a browser display, toolbar icon or e-mail. Another option is a standalone application (FeedDemon, RSSReader), a downloadable program that resembles an e-mail inbox in style and setup.

RSS is a boon for users, who no longer have to surf from site to site to get the news and information they need. No more trying to remember URLs or sifting through piles of bookmarks, tasks that can be tedious and time-consuming. RSS is like a personal news wire that delivers only the stuff that interests you.

It’s also a blessing for publishers, who can leverage the low barriers to entry (built-in customer base, simple feed setup) and unique marketing opportunities (behavioral targeting, real-time promotions) to solve several business issues including: improving ranking, increasing affiliate sales, finding new content publishers, reaching wider audiences and attracting new subscribers.

RSS completely changes how content is distributed and consumed online. Because distribution is 100 percent opt in, marketers get their message in front of a highly receptive audience. E-mail newsletters that otherwise may have remained mired in spam filters reach their intended consumers. Marketers also get a better handle on user behavior, altering selling tactics based on the content of user data, such as similar feeds.

From the consumption standpoint, users can view Web pages, blogs and newsletters in a more intuitive, organized fashion. Users of this addictive medium are exposed to more content from more sources in less time, allowing sellers the simultaneous benefit of wider distribution for their marketing message, particularly if they use a syndication service such as Feedburner.

If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. What RSS is doing for online content can be compared with what digital video recorders such as TiVo have done for the way people watch TV. Users now can ignore TV commercials altogether, getting the content (in this case, programming) without sitting through an advertiser’s message that may be irrelevant or uninteresting.

Like the music industry before them with the rise of digital technology such as MP3s, both TV and online publishing will have to adapt to these new technologies. RSS will push that adaptation along in a few ways. Sites that have offered their content for “free” supported by page-view revenue will have to revisit that business model. Users likely will read the same content as they always have but through an RSS reader instead. This could mean they will bypass the advertising featured on the advertiser’s revenue lifeline.

But RSS will open new advertising opportunities – specifically, embedding ads within RSS feeds themselves. Paid search providers including Overture (which partnered with Feedburner) and Kanoodle (which partnered with Pheedo) have been active in this area with impressive results.

In the end, content will be king. The “wrapper” it’s delivered in will matter less than the message itself. RSS represents a milestone in media consumption, one that will go a long way toward creating a more vibrant, open system of sharing information.

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