How to explain RSS to your friends, family & clients

RSS is something I use everyday for my own personal use that speeds up my use of the internet tenfold. Sadly, most people outside the industry still haven’t cottoned on to it yet. So I’m going to try help you to explain it to them.

Step 1: Explain what RSS is and what it the abbreviation stands for?

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication – when selling the idea of RSS to people it’s best not to dwell on the name too much – it’s a stupid name which I’m sure is partly responsible for the lack of popular uptake – instead focus on what RSS is and what it does and tell them RSS will save them time.

RSS is a simple way for people to see when a website has updated. A good example for this is news. If a big news story has broken you’ll want to be informed as and when information becomes available so you’ll probably keep checking your favoured news website every 20 minutes to see if it’s changed but with RSS you don’t need to bother as you’ll be informed as and when changes are made.

Explain all the different terminology and let’s people know it all means the same thing. Feeds, RSS, Atom, feedreaders, aggregators and all that bullshit really confuses people. It confuses me and I’m supposed to know what I’m doing.

Thanks to heavy promotion by BBC TV/Radio and Ricky Gervais in the UK, podcasts are relatively big news so a good idea might be to explain that RSS is like a podcast but with text instead of music/talking.

Step 2: Eliminate any confusion about RSS being like email updates

Having explained the basics of RSS to people most of them assume it’s similar to email updates whereby they put in their email address and get told when the site has updated but, ensure they know that RSS differs to email updates in a few crucial ways.

  • Unsubscribing is often much easier – it’s as easy as deleting an email
  • Your email inbox does not become crammed
  • and most importantly you don’t have to give anyone your email address. Bye-bye spam!

Step 3: Explain how you use RSS to do non-geeky things

Some great examples of using RSS are:

  • Keeping track of a news websites when you’re bored at work.
  • Keeping track of eBay searches to see if that new must-have item is being sold and at what price

Personally, I use RSS alot, to read blogs about web design but if I explain that to people they quickly get bored. Luckily I also use RSS for music (which is a much better example) – I read a lot of mp3 blogs and as soon as they post a new album to download I know about it straight away with RSS. I also frequent the ticket selling website Scarlet Mist on which you can swap/buy unwanted tickets at face value. Tickets posted on there go really quickly so with RSS I can find out about them straight away.

Letting people know what real-world things they can do with RSS will help sell it to them.

Step 4: Explain to them how they can read RSS.

People can download special RSS software (feedreaders) like Greatnews, or read RSS through their browsers including:

  • Internet Explorer 7 (and not IE6)
  • Firefox
  • Opera
  • or Safari on a mac

Some mobile phones are even now equipped with RSS readers so you can download RSS feeds from anywhere. I use my mobile phone to check for news headlines or football results when I’m bored and waiting for something.

Whatever they use to read RSS, the appearance is nearly always identical. A list of websites that are marked as bold if they have new items you haven’t read yet. A wesbite with nothing new will not be bold. Hey presto, it’s now obvious which sites are worth visiting but it gets better, you can also view the summaries (sometimes even the entire updated text) of the updates and then choose to visit the site only if the content is interesting. This allows better time management. People no longer have to check the site to see if it has updated and they no longer have to visit the site if the updated content is of no interest to them.

Step 5: Go a bit geeky and explain to your clients how RSS will improve their sites.

A website can do (at least) two things with RSS:

  1. Produce their own RSS feed for many purposes
  2. Use other RSS feeds to increase their content

With the correct permissions you can use RSS from another website to make your website a little bit more interesting. Example: If your client has a website trying to get people to visit a UK city then they could include a RSS feed from a local news site that gives people headlines about that city which will give them potential visitors a better feel for the place or they could include the RSS from BBC weather on that city so people from abroad can see what the weather is like (actually, scratch that, as it may decrease the number of people wanting to visit if they knew how poor UK weather can be!)

Using RSS in this way gives a website’s content another dimension but thankfully, it doesn’t detract from the original source i.e. if you supply an RSS feed from your site and someone else uses it on their site, there’s a strong chance that people will eventually find their way back to your site and your visitors will increase. Most RSS suppliers stipulate that you include a link back to their site and make it obvious (although not glaringly so) that the content is theirs. So clients shouldn’t be dissuaded from allowing other websites to use their RSS as it will probably benefit their site more than it will harm it.

Further reading

The BBC does a fantastic job of explaining RSS to people with it’s microsite Feed factory. The BBC display a link to this microsite next to every link to an RSS feed.

Read how I chose to explain RSS to JJB Sports customers (when I worked there). Note: I recommend taking a similar approach whenever you put RSS on a website as taking the time to casually explain these things reduces people fear of the unknown massively.

View these demonstration videos of how to subscribe to RSS in Internet Explorer 7. This page also contains some info for a webmaster about how to include a feed on your WordPress site.

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