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What does RSS mean for business?

By Kevin A. Jackson |

Like many such terms (for example DVD), its translation, or original meaning seems to have different interpretations, but here are some:

  • RSS = RDF Site Summary
  • RSS = Rich Site Summary
  • RSS = Really Simple Syndication
RSS is one of those acronyms you may have heard a lot lately, especially from the techies who are always finding new acronyms to confuse us with. Only now the PR and Media hacks are throwing it around too, and it may be the right time to take a closer look at how RSS may affect us and our businesses. This article takes a look at the strategic uses and implications of RSS, both for users and website publishers.

What is RSS?
In a nutshell RSS allows people who publish online to notify subscribers when they have updated their website. To be notified, people have to install a special piece of software on their computers (called an RSS reader) and then select the topics they are interested in. Updates will then be displayed as headlines and brief descriptions, with a link to take you directly to the full article.

This is not new technology, it has been around for several years, but is only lately starting to get a lot of attention, possibly as an alternative to email which has disillusioned many people lately with the volume of spam and viruses they are getting.

There are two relevant perspectives to think about regarding RSS - as a user, whether you would benefit from downloading and installing the RSS reader and subscribing to news feeds; or as a business, what are the pros and cons of setting up your website to provide an RSS feed.

The user's perspective
We are all suffering from "content overload" - too many magazines, ezines and newsletters to read, both in print and online, from trade magazines to the daily news, radio and TV. Not to mention email, inboxes clogging with letters from friends, colleagues, business queries and email newsletters and list-serve traffic.

Some people's reaction to this "content overload" may be to install an RSS reader and subscribe to a few key sources so that they can keep up to date on critical news and industry-related happenings. This would allow them to narrow their focus, unsubscribing from all but the most topical publications and email lists, and applying filters to all the rest. The question then is: shouldn't they be doing this anyway? And if they do this, how would an RSS reader improve things?

Many Publishers think that all of their subscribers are dying to hear everything they have to say, when sometimes they would rather not: they trust the publisher to insulate them from the overabundance of information out there, and only feed them information that they are really interested in, or in some cases, only the stuff that is vital. Whether this is being sent to them via RSS or email doesn't make much difference, except that email technology is simpler and doesn't require the installation of new software.

So why would you want to install RSS? Some of the pros and cons:


  • It does not need email.
  • You can monitor many different websites without having to visit them.

  • Not all websites have an RSS feed.
  • Yet another piece of software.
  • Just because it is available on RSS does not mean it is valuable.

The Business Perspective: Marketing a website using RSS
If you have invested the money and time in a website for your business, one of the issues you need to think about is how to get people to the website, and how to convert them into customers once they are there. One way to do this is by marketing the website heavily, through email, print, and other more traditional avenues. Another very important method, proven by many successful websites is to provide great content - useful nuggets of information that cannot be found elsewhere and that helps users find out what they need without a lot of "noise". This creates a natural flow of visitors, through links from other websites who appreciate the value of this content, which, in turn, increases referrals from Search Engines. Search Engines recognize the endorsement implied by the links from other websites, and they will put websites with more quality links to them closer to the top. It is important that these links are from other good quality websites though, not just websites with long lists of links on them.

Next you will want to turn visitors who come to your website from the Search Engines - and other websites - into repeat visitors, by inviting them to subscribe to an email newsletter. This is a great way to keep in contact with people who are interested in your products or services, as long as you have something new to say on a regular basis. It doesn't have to be daily or weekly, it can be monthly or quarterly even.

There are some situations where RSS is being used as an alternative to email newsletters, for example Purina has several RSS feeds, including pet profiles and pictures, advice columns for both dogs and cats. is using it to stream hot deals through an RSS feed called Dealazon There are more examples of large companies using RSS feeds to distribute their news releases, updates and latest product information, including Apple, and Intel, but for small businesses, the best examples seem to be Marketing and PR firms, who are in the business of creating and distributing News Releases and announcements, and retailers, who are using their RSS feeds to send out special offers and hot products, as Amazon is doing.

Other examples that are perfectly suited to RSS publishing are classified advertising and job listings, for example Craigslist, or mortgage rates, as posted by this Canadian site .

The critically important thing to remember is that RSS is just another technology tool, and unless you already have content of value to offer, it will not make much difference for your business online. However if you find that you are publishing content that is interesting to people, interesting enough that they might subscribe to an email newsletter from your website, then RSS is another option people can choose to hear from you.

What's next?
The Web browser makers are now building, or planning to build, support for RSS feeds right into the web browser, making subscribing as easy as adding a bookmark or favourite. We can look forward to many innovative little software applications that you will be able to install on your computer, that will pop-up with useful information such as the best gas price in your area, the weather forecast, or the latest share prices on the stock market. These are all applications that can take advantage of the core technology of RSS to feed breaking and current information right to your computer.

RSS is another medium of communication, very simliar to email and the web, with some subtle differences, but needing the Internet and computers all the same. In this day and age, where we are bombarded with communication media, from TV, Radio, Print, billboards, email and the web, it can be used to add to the noise, or it can be used to reduce the noise with intelligent application. I strongly advocate the use of technology, not for its own sake, but when it is appropriate, strategically or from a business perspective, where the potential for RSS to help reduce the noise is great, if used appropriately.

There are always going to be people who get excited about new technology for its own sake, and we have to cut through all the hype that they generate and look for the answer to the question we should always be asking: is it appropriate for me, and if so, how do I use it?

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