Tech Talk: Is RSS an underutilized powerhouse or just stupid?

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One of my darkest days as a technologist was in 2008 when my boss told me, “We’re killing your RSS project because we think RSS is stupid.” Beyond the obvious incorrect labeling of non-sentient technology as either “smart” or “stupid,” it was a huge mistake on the part of the management. And here’s why…

What is RSS

RSS stands for RDF Site Summary or “Really Simple Syndication” and it acts as an automated publishing and content syndication system for your blog or any kind of frequently published information such as newspaper headlines, radio programs, online video programs and so on. It’s a feature that is included in all blog software platforms, and you can access it through the Share This button on your blog. The RSS symbol is a dot and two concentric waves. It looks like the old symbol for radio waves.

But here’s why it’s powerful:

RSS transforms the rambling ambiguity of human narrative into a consistent format that can be infinitely understood and indexed by the robots that run 80% of the Internet. It allows you to feed blog content in a small widget on your home page, it feeds items into search engines (It’s true — the engines read your RSS feed first before your Web site), it feeds retail items from your Web site into Google Product Search and so on. It also allows you to publish content to your blog and automatically populate that content into Facebook, LinkedIn and any other social media you’re using.

Why does it have to be RSS?

RSS was developed by search engine engineers as a compromise between humans and machines. The Engines can’t read sites that are formatted inconsistently, but graphic designers and writers have never been very good at following rules. So back in the old days when sites were built with a Header/navigation/body text/footer, we didn’t need RSS. However, now that Web sites are built with in all sorts of configurations such as navigation/video/modules/navigation/body/footer it’s impossible to index site content in a consistent way.

RSS identifies and adds a meta tag to content such as Title, Description, URL, Date and so on–regardless of how you format the actual post. It allows engines and republishing systems to actually understand and DO something with your content even if yours is inconsistent with how other people publish their content.

Why isn’t everyone crazy about RSS?

There was an unfortunate timing event with the development of RSS. This paradigm went to market right around the time Facebook and LinkedIn became mega-sites and all the attention shifted from this super powerful DIY publishing platform to “taking advantage of Facebook for business” which was a huge distraction.

So now that we’re all coming back to our senses, take a look at your RSS feed — is the button even working? If it’s not, fix it. You’ll see much better site traffic and search results with this working, regardless of how many friends your business has on Facebook.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at marci@mdvinteractive.com.