Google Alerts Drops RSS Delivery Option

Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land points out that Google Alerts Drops RSS Delivery Option, which is pretty upsetting. The message says that “Google Reader is no longer available,” and says users need to switch to email alerts.

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Seems that Google is either just dumping RSS wholesale or that the feed engine that ran the RSS alerts was part of the Reader infrastructure. (You can still subscribe to Google News alerts by RSS, and news search terms, it seems, so I have no idea what the link is.) 

As commenters point out, this is going to break a lot more than simply Google Alerts. A lot of websites embedded feeds into their sites using Google RSS alerts:

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It’s an odd state of affairs for Google, which either didn’t anticipate the backlash or is so intent on chasing Facebook that it doesn’t care.  

Another option suggested by commenters: Talkwalker Alerts – The best free alternative to Google Alerts. It even looks like Google Alerts: 

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Haven’t tried it but seems to offer the goods. 

The rebirth of RSS?

This is a column written for the BBC World Service (here’s the show.). Views are my own, and do not represent those of my employer, Thomson Reuters. 

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things, but I’ve been particularly wrong about something called RSS. RSS is a simple standard, dreamed up during the halcyon days of the social web when there were enough interesting people writing blogs for it to become somewhat onerous to drop in, as it were, to see whether their website had been updated. In other words, there was a critical mass of bloggers to take blogging into the mainstream, but there was no easy way for the medium to scale from the point of view of readers. It was like everyone printing their own newsletter but asking interested readers to drop by their office every so often on the off-chance that a new edition had been published. 

So RSS, short for really simple syndication, was born. Essentially it wrapped up all the blog posts into a feed, a bit like a wire service, and pumped it out to anyone who wanted to subscribe. It worked brilliantly, but contained within in the seeds of its own — and, I would argue, social media’s — demise. 

The problem was this: As RSS became more popular more blogs used it. And websites. Reuters has a dozen or so; the BBC too. Soon every website was expected to have at least one RSS feed. Software called Readers became the main way to digest and manage all these feeds, and they worked well. So well  that Google got into the game, and soon dominated it. But adding feeds was still a tad awkward, but really RSS’ demise was, in my view, because of something else. 

As social media grew — I’m talking the early years here, when blogging was the preferred medium of expression, and when a certain civility held sway — it contained essential contradictions. Not everyone could be a creator, because then no one would have time to read what everyone else had written. A few kings and queens of social media emerged, and while a long thin tail remained, for the most part blogging simply grew to become like what old media was. Lots of “Talent”, lots of unrecognised talent.

In its place grew a different kind of content that could be more easily commercialised — the breadcrumbs of daily life, the links we share — which we now think of as Facebook, Twitter, Kakaotalk and WhatsApp. Content has become shorter,  and while some of those tools initially used the RSS standard to deliver it, for the most part each became a walled garden, largely fenced off from each other and driven by the value in the data that we shared, wittingly or unwittingly. 

So back to RSS. RSS is still with us, though Google is canning their service soon (eds: July 1). I am a tad upset, having predicted RSS would sweep the world. I was wrong in that, failing to take into account that content, like everything else, will tend to cater to shorter attention spans and the economics of the marketplace. But I do have hope that RSS won’t die off entirely. There are glitzy tablet apps for those who like their reading to come with big pictures and swooshy noises when you turn the digital page. A host of companies, including, ironically the once undisputed kings of the walled garden, AOL, are launching readers for Google refugees. 

I for one still need to fix some problems with my own RSS habits — the tendency to acquire new ones, the failure to read the ones I do subscribe to — but at least some people somewhere thinks there’s life in a daily diet of serious, lengthy reading without lots of eye candy. 

Locking Users In the Smart Way

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I was directed to this excellent piece, A Victim Treats His Mugger Right : NPR, via Facebook last night.  And it made me realise how publishers don’t make the most of that kind of referral.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that nowadays we tend to get more and more of our reading from peer suggestions like this. Navigating News Online from the Project for Excellence in Journalism estimates that while Google still accounts for 30% of traffic to the main U.S. news sites, Facebook is the second or third most important driver of traffic. And yet all news sites do to respond to that is put a Facebook like button on their stories and cross their fingers.

What they should be doing is create what I would call “corners”, but might also be called “series” or “seasons”. The same PEJ report notes that casual visitors to a news website account for the vast majority of visitors–USAToday, for example, a third of users spent between one and five minutes on the paper’s website each month. Power users–those that return more than 10 times a month and spend more than an hour there–account for an average of 7% of total users for the top 25 news sites.

This represents a huge failure on the part of websites to get users back, and spend more time there.

And I don’t see a lot of websites doing much about it. Which is a shame, because it’s relatively easy. You just need to think of your publication as a TV network, and your content as individual brands. Or, to continue the analogy, seasons.

If I start watching Archer, or Secret Millionaire and I enjoy it, chances are I’ll set my TV to record each episode. I like one bite; I want take the whole season. It may not be smart television, but it’s smart branding. But apart from columnists and a few other regular features, we don’t think the same when it comes to our content.

Take the NPR piece. It’s about a New York social worker called Julio Diaz who is mugged. He gives him his wallet, and then, invites the mugger to dinner. It’s a touching tale, and has been tweeted 635 times, shared on Facebook more than 200,000 times and has 92 comments. And, get this: It was published on March 28, 2008. More than three years ago. I didn’t even notice that when I was pointed to the story by a friend on Facebook. And I wouldn’t have cared: Once I started reading the story I was hooked, and listened to the recording all the way through.

This piece comes from a series called StoryCorps, a magnificent oral history project for which NPR is one of the national partners. Through three permanent StoryBooths and a traveling MobileBooth it has recorded more than 35,000 interviews since 2003. It has its own StoryCorps Facebook page, with more than 25,000 followers and a lively feel to it. (I recommend watching some of the animated accounts; they’re very moving.)

My point is this: StoryCorps is like a TV series, Loyalty is built around the brand itself: People know that if they like one item, they’re sure to like the next. And yet we do so little in our media products to make the most of this human desire to hear/read/watch more of something we like. Because we are news people, we think news is enough of a brand, we forget that for most people news is not in itself a reason to visit a news website. We are instead looking for more of what we may have liked before, and if we can’t find it, we won’t come back again.

Hence the dreadful statistics mentioned above.

So how to change this? Well, looking at the NPR page of the Julio Diaz story, we see a lot of the usual efforts to retain interest. There’s the most popular slot on the right, the related stories below, and then below that More From This Series. There are also links to subscribe to the podcast of the series, and to the RSS feed for this series.

This is all good. But it’s just the start. Let’s break down what these elements are:

  • The twitter/facebook like buttons are fine. But these are just ways of driving non-users to  to the same individual piece of content–in other words, this page.
  • The related links are ways of driving casual users to other internal content.
  • The podcast/RSS are ways of converting casual users to regular users of the content.

By defining them like this, it’s clear that only the last one really has any long-term objective to it. If we can get a user to subscribe to the podcast or the RSS feed, then we have actually got a loyal user–someone who is likely to spend more than a few minutes a month on our site, and to actually demonstrate some loyalty to our brand.

(Included in this last section is the Facebook page for a publication too, but I’m not going to go into that here.)

Now it’s probably no accident that RSS and podcasts are in steep decline. (Evidence for the decline is anecdotal, because usage of readers like Google Reader are still rising, but the rate of increase is falling, according to this piece on Quora; besides, a lot of other RSS readers have died off: Bloglines was closed down last September and NetNewsWire was sold earlier this month.)

Searches for the term RSS on Google have been falling steadily since 2006:

And podcasts haven’t fared much better. Their hey day was 2005 and 2006:

I think it’s no accident that both peaked around five years ago. That was the era of Web 2.0, and now we’re into the era of Social Media, which is dominated by Facebook and Twitter. Again, no accident that both use RSS, or used,  but have since moved on, or tried to move on.

The bottom line with both RSS and podcasts is that both have had their day. Both are a little too nerdy for most people: RSS is still way too tricky for ordinary users to master, and podcasts may be relatively easy to grab from iTunes, but still require a degree of managing that clearly doesn’t sit well.

Web 2.0 has moved on, and as social media has become more popular, and the tools for using it more user-friendly, podcasts and RSS have been left behind.

But, and here is the key point, Facebook and Twitter haven’t replaced them. RSS was/is a way for me to get your content to come to me. Facebook doesn’t really offer that, and neither, if you think about it, does Twitter.

For me to see your content I have to go to your Facebook page, or, alternatively, wait for it to pop up in my user feed. The latter is true of Twitter.

RSS allowed me to decide which of your content I liked–assuming you offered more than a single feed–and then to be able to access that on any device I liked. Podcasts were similar, but for audio and video. Now both are more or less dead, and, at least in terms of building loyalty to media channels, we’re not only back at square one, we’ve allowed other platforms–Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+–to place themselves between us and our reader.

I think this illustrates the weak thinking that media has tolerated. We need, somehow, to develop successor tools to RSS and podcasts that help us to build pipes direct to our readers/users.

Some people are trying this with iPhone/iPad/Android apps. It’s a start. But it doesn’t scale particularly well: The more apps there are, the less time people will spend on them.

And, more important, it’s still making a fundamental mistake by assuming that our readers are interested in us as a brand. They’re not. They’re interested in the channels we offer–thinking of them as seasons, I hope makes more sense, because we don’t just watch anything on a channel, we watch shows we like.

So we need to break down our content in this way, and then develop tools–apps, if you like–which cater to this desire and interest in content that is directly related (not automatically selected, or ‘may be related’) to the content that a user is interested in.

This is not that hard. NPR could build an app which helps to make it easier for anyone interested in the StoryCorps series to get all that content in a more straightforward way than RSS or podcast.

But it shouldn’t stop there. Measuring interest in a series should spur imaginative regeneration, repurposing and forking of content. The piece I mentioned, for example, had clearly resonated with the audience and should be paired with follow-up stories. Indeed, the StoryCorps corner of the NPR website should be a brand in itself, a community where editors regularly interact with readers and find ways to turn those casual users into regulars.

This is not rocket science. It’s simple math. At the moment we’re allowing other platforms to determine what people read on our website, and when they do drop by, we rely on HTML code, widgets and buttons to try to keep them.

Worst, we think merely about ‘keeping’ in terms of ‘sticky’: distracting the reader by luring other stories in front of their nose until eventually they get bored, or go home, or die, or something. I use the same tricks to entertain my 9-month-old. We need to be smarter than this.

Thinking our content in terms of ‘series’ might be a good place to start.

Podcast: Ahoy There, Microsoft (BBC)

How Microsoft loses my trust over Windows Seven, and how it can get it back. A weekly column I recorded for the BBC World Service Business Daily<http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/bizdaily/>.

To listen to the podcast, click on the button below. To subscribe, click here </feed/rss>.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here<http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/check/worldservice/meta/tx/daily_business?nbram=1&nbwm=1&size=au&lang=en-ws&bgc=003399>.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741 East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441 South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741 East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941 West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541* Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141* Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132 Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

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How to Use RSS Feeds

If there’s one thing I get more questions about than anything else, it’s “how do I do the whole RSS thing?” So here’s a cut out and keep guide to how do get up to speed on RSS.

First off, a brief introduction (and why you should care.) Feeds are the mainstay of the Web world. They deliver information to you without the clutter of email and can be read from any computer. They used to be just for reading blogs, but nowadays you can access your calendar, to do lists, and more or less anything you want via an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed. RSS is useful; it’s just a shame it’s a bit too geeky to be really straightforward.

This is how I do it. Yes, there are quicker and easier ways to set up feeds, and yes, this all sounds a bit unexciting and fiddly. But this approach, in my view, is the best because once it’s set up, you don’t have to do very much. And if you already have a Gmail email account, this makes even more sense.

1. Install Firefox browser if you don’t have it already. Download it from here. (www.getfirefox.com). (Firefox works better at doing this than other browsers; I suggest you use Firefox as your main browser; it also means this guide will work equally well for Mac users.) 

2. In the View menu in Firefox, go to the Toolbars sub-menu and click on the Bookmarks Toolbar if it is not already ticked. This will add a toolbar below the top row of buttons in your browser.

3. Now, using Firefox, go to Google Reader’s homepage (www.google.com/reader/) Open a Google account if you don’t have one by clicking on the link Create an account now. Follow all the steps necessary to have a Google account (you can use this for email too) and to set up your Google Reader.

4. In Google Reader, click on Settings in the top right hand corner, and then Goodies. Scroll down to the section “Subscribe as you surf.” Drag the Subscribe… button in that section to your Bookmarks toolbar (the on you just set up). Do this by moving the cursor over the orange button until the pointer turns into a pointing hand. Click on the link and, without releasing your finger from the mouse button, drag the link to the toolbar at the top of your page. Release the mouse button, and you’ll see a white sheet icon with “Subscribe” next to it. (If it doesn’t work the first time, try again.)

5. You now need to add some feeds to your Reader. Visit a web page with an RSS feed on it. (If you’re stuck for choice, visit my own humble abode at www.loosewireblog.com.) In the address field at the top of the browser, where the web site address is located, you’ll see an orange RSS icon in the right hand corner. This icon, the accepted button for RSS stuff, indicates an RSS feed is available. Click on the “Subscribe” button you just installed in your Firefox toolbar.

6. Your browser will take you to your Google Reader page, and will have loaded the RSS feed from the page you just visited. You’ll see 10 or so items from that feed listed in the Reader.Click on the blue/grey “Subscribe” button in the top right hand corner of the Google Reader.

7. A yellow bar will appear in the top half of the screen. Click on the “Add to folder” pull down menu in that bar and then, at the bottom of that list, click on “New folder”. Add a name for the folder you want to keep this RSS feed in (“news” or “personal” or whatever.) Click OK. The folder will now appear in the left hand pane with the feed you’ve just subscribed to.

8. To read the feed either click on the name of the feed, in blue, on the left hand pane, or the folder icon and title of the folder it belongs to. The latter will include all feeds in that folder, gathered together. The former will just be the feed you’ve subscribed to.

9. To view just the headlines of each feed, click on “List View” in the top hand corner of the Google Reader; to read more extended chunks (and sometimes the whole post) click on “Expanded View” next to it. To read the post on its original web site (rather than in Google Reader) click on the headline to expand the view of the post, and then the larger font headline below. The link will open in a new browser window.)

10. Now you can add feeds to your collection whenever you see the orange icon appear in the address box of a page you visit.

That’s it. Let me know how you got on, whether you have more questions, tips or requests for more guides. Good luck.

The Secret of Being Well-Read

By Jeremy Wagstaff

If you’ve been following this column closely, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of Really Simple Syndication, or RSS. I reckon it’s the single greatest thing to come out of the last few years on the Web. Well, that and Facebook. And Skype. And blogging. And disposable socks.

(For those of you not sure what I’m talking about, think of RSS like this: lots of interesting people, sending you news and thoughts in a way that suits you, not them. For more, dig around my site tenmov.es which explains how to get up to speed on RSS.)

The problem is that RSS has been too successful. Everyone now offers their data in RSS form—newspapers offer dozens of RSS feeds, as they’re called, diced according to topic (sports, cookery, foreign news, corruption and skullduggery in high places; whatever the main issues are).

They’re not alone. Government departments are doing it; every blog does it; you can subscribe, as it’s called, to feeds of people’s bookmarks, their Facebook updates, their Flickr photos. It’s great stuff—it makes it possible to stay on top of all sorts of things, from big international stuff to what your kid’s doing at school—but it creates its own chaos.

The tendency, for us end-users, is to add feeds when we come across them. Visit an interesting blog and you want to take the feed so you can stay on top of what that person is saying, or see the photographs they’re sharing. Which is good; much better to grab it before you forget.

But this quickly gets out of hand. Before long you’ve acquired dozens of feeds and you’re now drowning in information. You have no time in the day to read it and now it feels like you’ve traded one bulging in-tray for another.

If this is what’s happened to you, here’s how to fix RSS excess:

The first point I’d make is to make a clear distinction between your email in box and your RSS. Email is for action: other people sending you stuff that you need to act upon, or for you to create emails and send them to other people.

RSS, by contrast, is for reflection: A chance for you to grab a cup of coffee and “read yourself up to date.” And don’t be shy about including in this stuff that which is personal—your football team, say—as well as professional. RSS is flexible enough to deal with this (as should be your boss.)

OK, a check list:

  • A feed reader that lets you create folders (Google Reader, for example).
  • An easy way to add feeds that doesn’t eat into your day (once again, check out tenmov.es for the simplest way to do this.)
  • An idea of what feeds you want, or you have already.

Now you’re ready to go.

First off, create folders that describe your interests, professional and personal: football, art, productivity, currencies, geraniums, etc.

When you grab a new feed, make sure you put it into the appropriate folder. Don’t leave it lying around for other people to trip over, or so you never find it again.

Get into the habit of checking your RSS feeds on a regular basis. Don’t let them pile up.

When you start to feel you’re getting more feeds than you can possibly read, you need to move to the next stage: creating super folders.

Create a couple of folders called ‘want to read’ and ‘must read’ (or something similar; I’m not necessarily going to come round and check you’ve done this exactly as I say.)

Move the feeds that you really need to stay on top of into the second folder. In the first put the feeds that you’d hate to miss, but upon which your job doesn’t depend. (Google Reader lets you put a feed in more than one folder, so you can keep these feeds in their original folders as well.)

If you put an “+” in front of the folder’s name you’ll find it usually sits at the top of your folder list, which makes it easier to find: Mine’s called +brainfood. Go figure.

The rule of thumb here is that you should have had time to read all the feeds in those folders by the end of the day. There’s nothing more demoralizing than coming in to work and finding a bunch of feeds piling up from the previous day. (OK, I suppose more demoralizing is coming into work and finding your company has gone bankrupt, but it’s all relative.)

If you find your new super folders are still bursting at the seams, start weeding. One way to do this is to remove those feeds from these folders that you can’t manage until you reach a comfortable level.

What I do is create another folder called “brainfood+” which contains stuff I really, really must read. I move the vital stuff from “brainfood” into this new folder until I’ve reached that sweet spot where I can manage reading the folder without breaking a sweat.

(The advantage of this, apart from it qualifying me as Grade–A Nerd, is that you’ve still got a backup folder of stuff you’d like to read if you had time. The old folder becomes a sort of wish-list of stuff you should read, whereas the + folder becomes the stuff you really have to read if you want to keep your job/spouse/house. Follow?)

Now keep pruning as you go, since the balance is likely to shift. I avoid subscribing to feeds where lots of stuff is coming in: I really, really like bloggers and writers who just write when they need to—sometimes only once a month. The beauty of RSS is that I’ll catch that rare post of distinction without having to do anything—and it doesn’t clog up my folder needlessly.

I hope this helps a bit. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve got your own solutions for dealing with RSS excess.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

 

How to Build a Custom Search Engine

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Custom Search is a great way to build a search engine that searches only the sites you want. This is useful if you find you’re trawling those sites—blogs, government sites, news sites, etc—on a regular basis and would rather search them all in one go.

Setting it up is pretty easy.

Go to Google’s Custom Search Engine page.

Click on the blue button:

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Enter a name, and a brief description:

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Enter some keywords relevant to your beat and the language you’re working in:

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Select the first option in the next list (Only sites I select) – unless you want to include the web in your search, with the sites you select in the next window given priority:

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Start typing in (or pasting) the names of the websites you want to include. Include http:// s ; it won’t work without.

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Select the free edition and click the terms of service. And then click Next:

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Try a few test queries to see if you need to tweak. If you do, hit the browser’s back key and tweak:

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When you’re happy, click Finish. (You can always add more sites later.)

You’ll then be sent to a page listing your search engine, and any others you choose to add. If you need to tweak, click on the control panel link; the homepage link will take you to the search box of the relevant engine.

Here’s a couple of custom search engines I’ve built as examples:

Tip(s)

It’s worth bookmarking this page, or even adding it to your iGoogle page if you have one.

  • Some websites don’t submit themselves to Google well. For mission critical searches, compare the results of your engine with those of the site’s own search. Sometimes Google does a better job, but sometimes it doesn’t.
  • Custom search works best a tool to use alongside RSS feeds. RSS is great for monitoring new stuff; custom search is great for looking up background or hunting other less time-sensitive stuff: names, projects, companies etc
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Foleo, Surface, Stumbling etc

There’s lots of news out there which I won’t bother you with because you’ll be reading it elsewhere. But here are some links in case:

  • Palm has a new mini laptop called the Foleo. I like the idea, but I fear it will go the way of the LifeDrive, which I also kinda liked.
  • Microsoft has launched a desktop (literally) device called the Surface. Which looks fun, and embraces the idea of moving beyond the keyboard not a moment too soon, but don’t expect to see it anywhere in your living room any time soon.
  • eBay buys StumbleUpon, a group bookmarking tool I’ve written a column about somewhere. I don’t use StumbleUpon that much but I love the idea of a community-powered browsing guide. Let’s hope eBay doesn’t mess it up like they seem to be doing with Skype.
  • Microsoft releases a new version of LiveWriter, their blogging tool. Scoble says Google is planning something similar. True?

Oh, and Google Reader now works offline. Here are my ten minut.es with it, and a how to guide at ten ste.ps. This is big news, because it’s the first step Google have made in making their tools available offline. I’ve found myself using their stuff more and more, so the idea of being able to use the Reader, Calendar, Docs and Gmail offline seems an exciting one. (We’re not there yet, but Google Reader is a start.)

This brings me to again plead with anyone offering an RSS feed of their stuff, to put the whole post in the feed. Offline browsing is not going to work if you can only read an extract.

What’s RSS to You?

I’ve been playing with RSS feeds for a few years but nearly always find myself struggling for a strategy to stay in control of them. Most of the time I hardly make a dent in the unread posts, so my favorite reader for them is one that can let me mark lots of posts as read without feeling too guilty. But maybe it’s just me.

This led me to wonder how other people use them, and, well, whether they use them. It’s one technology that seems to have taken off, given all the RSS buttons you see around the web, but I sometimes wonder just how many people are actively getting their information from RSS and how.

I’m hoping your answers might shed light. The survey’s here. There’s no registration required, and nothing weird is collected about you. It’s all on one page so there’s no boring clicking through to do. And it’s in a lovely green shade, which I think you’ll like/hate. Plus, I’ve tried to leave space for you to leave your responses that don’t fit the choices I give; if there’s not enough space, or you just really hate surveys, please feel free to write to me direct. If you’re amenable to me contacting you by email with follow-up questions about your responses, please throw your email address and name into one of the answers.

Thanks in advance to those of you who do answer. Feel free to pass it on to others who might be interested. Results will be published at some point, in some form or another.

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Email Wins Over RSS?

I’ve been obsessively watching email subscription to my blog via Feedblitz and while we’re talking modest numbers here, it’s great to see people signing up. (It’s on the left hand side of the blog below my smarmy mugshot.) Much more personal somehow, than an RSS subscription.

Which doubles the pain when someone unsubscribes. Was it something I said? Something I didn’t say? The way I said it? What’s the etiquette on this?

Email subscription to blogs is actually a pretty useful tool. It may look like a step back from RSS but actually it has its uses. I use it for those blogs that I definitely want to read, and can’t afford to ignore (knowing that some days I’ll only get around to checking my RSS reader once or twice.) Email I’ll always read. And most feeds look nice in Feedblitz.

But maybe Feedblitz has missed a trick. Given email is a two way street, wouldn’t it be good to make the Feedblitz subscription more interactive? Allow readers to comment on a post just by hitting ‘reply’, or at least to offer feedback to the writer (especially when they unsubscribe a day after subscribing.)