There’s been a lot of speculation around the fate of FeedBurner lately after some updates about the service’s API were mis-construed (including by me) to apply to the future of the service as a whole. It’s not a shock to say that RSS has fallen out of favor as models shift to social network distribution and consumption so all the stars seemed to be aligning for FeedBurner to be phased out. Not helping the matter was Google’s silence on the speculation, something that thankfully ended today with this short note in a longer post:
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.
That’s incredibly good to see and calms a lot of fears.
But someone asked in the wake of this news whether RSS was even relevant anymore and whether this was something we, as an industry that includes corporate publishing program support as a feature set, should continue to focus on?
Let me put it this way: There are a lot of good reasons why support for RSS could be dropped as a publishing priority. It’s not user-friendly (outside of things like MyYahoo that hid the RSS experience even while including its functionality), the metrics have always been a little fuzzy and more. I get the desire to make this one less thing to worry about as the focus moves to distribution on social networks.
But the best reason to continue to support RSS feeds and include them as key performance indicators – even if they need to be caveated to within an inch of their lives – is that just like someone who has opted to Like you on Facebook, RSS subscriber numbers represent individuals who have taken a positive action to stay up to date on whatever news it is you’re sharing. And even more importantly, those are folks who have said this is the best way for them to continue doing so since time-shifting those updates is more efficient for them than potentially losing important news in the stream. They *want* to see it.
As I discussed previously, the problem with the metrics on many social networks is that while they’re very good at showing the potential reach of an update – represented by fan/follower counts – they’re sometimes very bad at showing how many people actually did see it. Facebook, interestingly enough, is better at this than Twitter since it shows engagement and reach on a post-by-post level, numbers that are incredibly important when measuring the success of a program. RSS too has the potential to show that sort of detail around how many people actually loaded the feed, how many clicked through and so on.
It’s important to note, though, that RSS is natively a dumb technology. I don’t mean to say it’s stupid, but it’s simple. It shoves content out the door in a certain way and it’s largely up to the reader/catcher software to interpret it and display it accordingly. That’s where services like FeedBurner have been so useful since it took that dumb feed and gave some of that control – full/partial feeds, signature and so on – back to the publisher by acting as a pre-delivery interpreter.
Yes, RSS is still important. Without it we lose a lot of the functionality that powers the web. It’s importance to one program or another will vary from one case to the next but it costs nothing to continue offering it as an option and maintains one of the core foundations of the social web, even as distribution and consumption models change. There may be a day where all this ceases to be so but we’re not there yet. Not even close.
(Update since writing this: TechCrunch reads the same paragraph and concludes it’s part of the FeedBurner Death Watch. While I agree it’s disconcerting that more resources aren’t being put into maintenance I think this is an overly pessimistic reading of tea leaves.