RSS Week::How to Make RSS = Really Satisfying Syndication

    by Mark Glaser
    July 5, 2006

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    We live in a time of information overload. News and opinion swirls around us online, burying us in an avalanche of foreign newspaper sites, viral video, political blogs, school email newsletters, showbiz podcasts and on and on. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, another hundred new sites spring up and become must-read material.

    That’s where the promise of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) comes in, a geeky technology that lets you subscribe to your favorite news sites, blogs, and podcasts. You then use a news reader — either software or web-based — to look at all your sites at a glance. Rather than having to go visit 85 different sites, you can use your feed reader to go through all the recent headlines from those sites, and you can even read the content from within the reader.

    There’s a lot to like about RSS technology and the idea that it will save you time in web browsing. But there’s also a lot to learn about it, and a lot that could be improved. So, starting with the Your Take question asking you to tout the reader of your choice, I’m going to make U.S. Independence Day week into RSS Week here at MediaShift. We have a Top 5 dedicated to RSS, and tomorrow I’ll have a special Guide to RSS.


    Today is the day to dream a little dream, hope a little hope, and imagine a future time when RSS technology turns a little less geeky and becomes more practical for the common news junkie. I have tried various news readers and personalized news sites but very few have become constant companions. I don’t want the feed reader to add more time to my reading day — I want to subtract the searching, the yearning, the culling, the off-topic tangents that take me away from what I want.

    10 Steps to Making Really Satisfying Syndication

    1. Better suggested feeds. Some feed readers helpfully suggest other feeds that might interest me. That’s nice, but very few have comprehensive lists of what I might want.


    2. Recommend stories or posts depending on my preferences. Give more personalization features that let me filter the barrage of reading material in a meaningful way based on what types of information I want and my mood. For instance, today I might want an emphasis on sports and business and tomorrow I might want updates on the War on Terror and political policy.

    3. Automatically rank all posts or stories depending on how other people rate them, or by how many other people read them. Some sites such as Digg or Daily RSS offer community-rated news, but not within a news reader’s interface.

    4. Show me related posts. As I’m reading, if I find a story that I particularly like, I’d like to see blogs that refer to that story or other stories that are similar to that one.

    5. When pulling up one particular source, such as New York Times Technology or BuzzMachine, let me order the posts by Most Relevant to my preferences, or Most Popular by other readers, or Most Commented On (if they are blog posts with comments). That gives me a better idea of what I should read.

    6. Learn my preferences dynamically. Based on what I read and click on over time, the RSS reader could start to order my sources and the articles by my past behavior. This is a similar functionality to the personalized news site, Findory.

    7. Tangent warnings. If I start to read articles or blog posts that are not in my preferred subject areas, the RSS reader should warn me in a polite but firm way that I am going off on a tangent and need to focus.

    8. Make adding feeds a snap. If I am visiting a site or blog, I don’t want to have to hunt around to find its RSS feed link. I want some type of shortcut that will add the page’s feed to my reader in as few steps as possible.

    9. Highlight hot topics. A computer algorithm could search through all the stories I subscribe to (and perhaps related ones online) and find the hot topics that people are writing about and create a running list of these.

    10. Block news I don’t want. Maybe I’m tired of news from Iraq or the World Cup, or I’ve taped the Oscars on my DVR and don’t want to know who won them yet. Create a “block news” feature that lets me block news stories or blog posts on these topics that I don’t want to see.

    Some of these features exist in part in current news readers, and some are on the drawing board. The personalized RSS news reader, Feeds 2.0, shows some promise and I’ve just started playing around with that in the beta test. And blogger Chrono Cracker has a nice list of 25 features he’d like to see in The Perfect RSS Web-Based Reader.

    Now it’s your turn. What features would make RSS feed readers better, more potent, and help you save time? How would you describe the perfect RSS news reader? Share your thoughts below in comments.

    • David,
      Thanks for the Fisking. I probably should have made it clear that I was talking about improving the RSS news reader software/websites rather than the RSS feeds from the content provider. I haven’t used Feedrinse yet but will give it a try. Of course I was being a bit facetious about the “tangent alerts” but the point I’m making is that RSS news readers have some nifty features, but could be even better.

      Rather than attack my points, perhaps you could explain ways that you think RSS readers could improve — or do you think they’re perfect as is?

    • Mark,

      Knowing that your intent was to talk about features you would like to see in an aggregator clears up quite a bit.

      The rest of my critiques were in that you are asking for new features without seeming to know what is currently available. A number of features you said you wanted already exist (#3, #9). Others (#8 for example) cannot be resolved by a reader alone.

      I’m also a bit troubled that you changed the content of your post AFTER I commented on it without noting the edits in your post. After all, my comments are placed in a whole new light with the addtional paragraph you’ve tacked on the end.

      What I want is a web-based reader with multiple levels of interface options (for users of various tweaking interest and ability), extensive filtering functions, and output functions for a couple dozen formats, from HTML and OPML through MS Word and ODF.

      My biggest concern, Mark, is that you’re billed as a “new media expert”, ideally here to help the less technologically inclined to catch up. Meanwhile, you’re using less-than-ideal confusing terminology (e.g. “newsreader”), you don’t seem to know about some widespread and well-known tools (e.g. feedrinse, tailrank), and you’re misrepresenting both the nature and potential of RSS by implying that RSS is (exclusively) for syndicating news, blogs and podcasts.

      You’re blogging for PBS. People trust PBS and expect it to give them the whole, accurate, complex story (Frontline fan, here). From Fox News I’d expect dumbing-down or shoddy research, but not from PBS.

    • David,
      Not sure why you’re picking a fight with me here. I clearly said that some of these features were available but not ALL of them in one reader.

      I DO put “UPDATE” in front of any text I add later. That last paragraph was on there from the beginning.

      And what you’re asking for sounds very similar to what I asked for, albeit in a more succint way.

      Nice cheap shot at PBS as well, and my credentials. I think I do a pretty good job of summing up what RSS is in the Guide to RSS posted today.

      If you want to continue this, feel free to email me privately at mark at mediashift dot org. I doubt my readers are gaining anything from ad hominem personal attacks.

      If you want to discuss RSS feeds or what you’d like to see next in their evolution, you’re welcome to share.

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