Random Thoughts

Can RSS feeds replace email?

With all the spam being sent by email, users are trying many things to avoid getting it. This includes spam filters, blacklisting and whitelisting, and more. Those who are concerned about this, are serious marketeers who have problems with their newsletters not arriving at their customers – even if they have subscribed to the newsletters; there are so many hindrances in the way.

With this in mind, some are wondering if RSS/Atom is an alternative way for distribution. However, there are a few questions many ask themselves:

  1. How many users know what RSS is?
  2. How useful is it? That is, can it really replace email?
  3. How easy is it to make?
  4. What about spam?
  5. And not to forget: What is RSS, really?

I don’t know how many use RSS – I do remember that the percentage isn’t high – but I know that the number isn’t declining. So the question people should ask themselves is: If RSS is the future, wether it replaces email or not, is it wise to ignore it? If IE follows suit to Opera and Firefox and includes an RSS reader in the browser when it’s rewamped (as I’ve heard speculations about,) there will be many who try it out to see what it is.

How useful RSS is and if it can replace email – it depends. First of all, let’s look a bit at what RSS is, without any technical stuff to complicate and confuse.

On your website, you make an XML-file which contains the information you want to publish. This is the file that RSS readers access when they check if there’s new information. There’s no standard for how often it should be checked – it can be once a week, once a day, once an hour… That’s basically it.

How useful RSS is then, basically depends on the content. This can, of course, take many forms, from a full article, an excerpt of the article with a link to the full article on the web site, or just plainly a link. Most RSS readers will show the content of the XML-file, quite like email, but there are those who just show the title so that you have to visit the site to read.

As a user, how does reading RSS feeds differ from reading email? With the RSS readers I have tried: Very little. Just as I can get all kinds of newsletters via email; full text, an exerpt, or a link saying it’s now online – I can get the same as RSS feeds. The interface is very similar or identical to the familiar email interface, and personally I think it’s just as easy to use, too. Using Opera for both browsing and RSS, it takes often only a single click to subscribe to a feed, but it wasn’t really more complicated when I used a separate reader – it just took an extra click for me. Unsubscribing from a feed only takes a couple of clicks, too.

What about spam? After all, spammers seems to be pretty ingenious in thwarting everything to get their spam out, right? Not so here. You’re in full control over the RSS feed, which is that XML-file on your site. Anyone interested in your feed will read that file directly – a spammer can’t get in there, short of hacking into your site. The only way someone can get spam in their RSS reader, is if they subscribe to a spam feed – in which case it only takes a couple of clicks to unsubscribe again, remember? The user has complete control over which feeds to receive.

True, if you use a blog where people can comment on your posts, and where it’s possible to subscribe to feeds made from those comments, spammers can get through. But that is a different feed than your normal newsletter feed. Though, it is of course possible to turn off comments in blogging software and use it to make newsletters.

So, how easy is it to make RSS feeds? I make one by hand for the updates to my site – not difficult, but not a method to recomment for often updated feeds, as it is a bit labour. Also, software to help you makes it all much easier, and removes chances of making silly mistakes. 😉

Which software exists to help you? Not having had the need to know myself, I haven’t really tried to find out, but one commercial program I know of is FeedForAll. I know however that there are many more programs, including free ones – and I wouldn’t mind learning which ones those are.