RSS Going Mainstream 2007: New York Times & Washington Post Have Big Plans

For those unfamiliar, RSS is generally thought to stand for “Really Simple Syndication,” a name that’s almost as useless as the acronym in explaining what it is. In short, it’s a technology that allows users to read headlines/articles from news websites, blogs, and other sources all in one place.

It’s a huge time saver, making it so that you don’t have to browse the Internet to check out the latest content from your top 50 sites (or however many). RSS strips all that information from the original site and consolidates it into one area for you to quickly see content from all over the place.

So instead of typing in the 50 different website addresses into your browser every time you want to see what’s new on any of your favorite sites, you have it all in one place. And what’s better: every time one of the sites updates with new content, you get an alert.

You know a particular technology is getting popular when Microsoft tries to patent it: two recently published patent applications show that Microsoft is basically claiming it invented RSS. The applications were filed last June but were just made public a few days ago. Microsoft has decided to call RSS “Web feeds.” Not much is expected to be granted in this case, as RSS is usually thought of as a technology in the works for the past seven years with the original format coming from Netscape Communications.

But whatever the case, now the New York Times and the Washington Post have big plans to implement a more user friendly version of the technology into their websites. Right now only 2 percent of online consumers take advantage of RSS. The nondescript, technical name chosen is the likely culprit of average users ignoring it.

You can find sites that support it by looking for the little orange button (pictured above, much larger than usual), though little orange buttons don’t offer much in the way of helping consumers understand what they are (TechConsumer has a slightly bigger button in the top right but with no description).

Unless you’re familiar with how it works, clicking on an RSS icon is only the first step. You have to copy the web address of the RSS feed and put it into your RSS reader. Since instructions for this process are usually not present on most websites, the service hasn’t been catching on.

But for 2007, top U.S. news sites like the New York Times and the Washington Post are planning to change that. In the first half of 2007, the NYTimes.com plans to offer separate RSS feeds for topics, reporters, and columnists.

“Once we start doing that, you won’t get that very geeky screen,” explains Robert Larson, NYTimes.com’s vice president of product management and development. “It should be incredibly easy for anybody, no matter what their technical level, to click a button and add a feed to their MyTimes page.”

Washingtonpost.com has similar plans for early 2007, according to Ann Marchand Thompson, the site’s editor for discussions, e-mail, and RSS:

“We want to let people sign up for the news that they want to receive without having to feel like they need a technical background to do it,” she said. “They don’t need to know the code behind it.”

And with the release of the newest versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox, using RSS should become easier, as the service is now built into both browsers. But still, it’s the type of service you need to see in action before you’re likely to convert. Though once converted, you’re not likely to go back to browsing the Web the traditional way…

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