"If I walk into the street," says Ashley Harrison, " and say to someone, hey, what’s RSS? And I’ve done this, they’ll say, it’s that orange button but I don’t really know what to do with it."
But that hasn’t stopped him from building a business on the "Really Simple Syndication" technology. His company, Mediafed, monetizes RSS feeds for publications by inserting display ads in them. By working with more than 2,000 publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian, it has accumulated more than 200 million active users across different RSS readers.
A few years ago, however, he started to notice Google Reader traffic to RSS feeds dwindling. In 2011, Google Reader accounted for 16% of Mediafed RSS feed readership on March 14. On the same date last year, it accounted for 13%. And by this Thursday, the day that Google announced it would withdraw its support for the reader, that percentage had dwindled to 8%. It was clear that, as Google mentioned in a blog post announcing Reader's retirement, "over the years usage has declined."
But at the same time, the number of readers Mediafed reached through RSS feeds was growing—from about 100 million monthly users in March 2012 to 200 million monthly users this month. The company had taken on additional publications, which accounted for some of this growth. But Harrison chalks up the rest to mobile.
"What we’re saying is yes, the name RSS has been dead for some time," he says. "But actually the medium, or the protocol is in really rude health … In the last two years there’s been a plethora of really good user UIs." As Google Reader traffic for Mediafed's partner RSS feeds has declined, mobile traffic on the same RSS feeds has increased 32% to 40% in the last year.
Increasingly popular social news reader apps such as Pulse and Flipboard, and Taptu—the social news reader app Mediafed acquired last year when it realized readers were shifting to mobile—are built on RSS, though their users might not even realize they’re using that technology. In fact, they often have an option to import Google Reader feeds.
"The technology is alive and well, but RSS feed readers as a conception are slowly being phased out by better ways of finding content," says Roman Karachinsky, the CEO of News360, a social news app that learns what readers like in order to deliver relevant content. He puts the situation in automotive terms. "To me an RSS feed like Google Reader is like a car," he says. "It has the steering wheel, it has the engine, it has the radio, but there’s not really a way you can make it significantly better unless you go way beyond the car and you make, like, a self-driving car…Google+ and Google Currents [Google's Flipboard-like product], that’s kind of the self-driving cars of content consumption, while Google Reader is the car. It’s really nice. It’s a BMW, but there’s not really that much more you can add to it without making making it completely different."
That’s not to say there aren’t hardcore Google Reader users who just want a car. Many of them are reporters who use the service to sort through the day’s news without missing anything important. And apparently there are enough of them that they drive more traffic to BuzzFeed's network than Google+ (A Google spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the comparison). Thus, their outcry was heard. There was a petition. Articles sprouted up everywhere with titles such as "Google Reader, please don't go—I need you to do my job."
"RSS subscribers who use Google Reader are typically power users," Mediafed's Harrison says. "We expect them to continue reading feeds. And they’ll find another platform to move on to and continue that RSS consumption."
For one RSS reader, NewsBlur, that has certainly been true. Within 12 hours of Google's announcement that it would shut down Google Reader, NewsBlur's userbase increased from 50,000 users to 100,000. Of that number, says its founder Samuel Clay, about 4% have signed up for the $12-per-year paid option. "I have two dozen servers, they’re bouncing all around and I’m working tirelessly to get them up and running," he says.
Digg reacted to the mourning of Google Reader making a promise to re-create its functionality. But even that won't bring Google Reader back from the dead in its obsessive-compulsive must-consume-every-headline form. Digg's general manager, Jake Levine, says that in addition to some core functionality he doesn't want to mess with, he plans to add some features made popular by social news apps. "You have to remember that Google Reader was built for a different Internet," he says. "No Twitter, No Facebook. These signals (and others) can help users sort, filter, and organize their sources to discover the stories they're likely to find most interesting."
In other words, it's not so much that RSS feeds are dying. It's that RSS feed readers are evolving to fit the content overload of our times.
[Image: Flickr user Ian Usher]