At least 75 million people in the United States and the United Kingdom use Really Simple Syndication (RSS) on a regular basis, but two-thirds say they don't have a clue what RSS is.

That’s according to a Yahoo-sponsored research study late last year by Ipsos Insight.

In this day and age, how can this be?  How can so many people be using RSS, but have so little awareness of it? The small business community has a vested interest in helping to educate Internet users about this technology because it holds so much potential for cost-free marketing and communication to customers.  

A serious case of geekiness

The simple reality is:  RSS still has far too much geek factor. 

It’s like asking people if they use PHP software.  Most people (except the techiest among us) would say, "No." However, PHP is a common scripting language used in many popular websites today.  We can be using sites built on PHP -- and never realize it.  And there is no reason we should know it.  As users, we don’t need to know the enabling technology. All we need to know is what the website does for us.

Yet website owners continue to communicate about RSS by describing the technology to potential subscribers instead of the benefits.

For instance, just about every definition of RSS that you read defines it as “really simple syndication.”  That may be a definition but it’s hardly helpful -- and it is symptomatic of the problem with RSS. RSS is a tool that allows users to subscribe to blogs, websites, or news and have new or updated content sent to them on a regular basis. To businesses, this means potential for marketing sales, new products or other announcements.

Solving the RSS communication problem

To consumers, rather than defining technology, we should be emphasizing the benefits, instead.  And explaining in simple non-technical terms how to use RSS feeds.  The benefits to them are substantial: convenience, time savings, and access to more current information sources.

Some industry leaders have started to take steps toward demystifying RSS. Under the industry leadership of Firefox and Microsoft, the original orange buttons with the letters XML or RSS that websites post to alert users to subscribe, are being replaced with a new, more attractive, abstract button sans confusing acronyms.  Some content publishers have even discontinued using the phrase “RSS feed,” in favor of the less technical term “Web feeds” or just “feeds.”

And a few of the aggregator sites like My Yahoo now offer users a convenient way to search for and add new feeds with just a few clicks.

What website owners can do

If you are a small business owner with a website and want to demystify this technology and encourage users to subscribe to your feed, here are some steps to take.

  • Use the new orange button.  If you are still using the old buttons with the acronyms XML or RSS, swap them out for the new button.  Today’s browsers, such as Firefox, auto-detect RSS feeds and will display the new orange button in the lower right hand corner of the browser when the user is on a site with RSS. You want users to see the same version of the button on your site and in the browser bar.  This will help reinforce how to use RSS feeds.
  • Use descriptive text links. Add a text link next to the orange button. A simple “subscribe to news feeds” text link is preferable to the rather baffling “syndicate this site” label that you so often see.
  • Consider adding a description page.  Give your readers an information page with a plain English description of feeds. The Yahoo study pointed out that some of the confusion users experience comes after they click on the orange buttons and either nothing happens or they’re taken to an ugly page of raw HTML. One easy alternative is to use the FeedBurner service. FeedBurner adds a user friendly page.
  • Offer one-click subscribe buttons. “One click subscribe” buttons let users do just that: subscribe with one or a few clicks to automatically receive updates to your feed at one of the popular start pages or news aggregator sites such as Bloglines or Google reader.
  • Use RSS auto-discovery.  Add an RSS auto-discovery command to your website’s HTML, if the site supports this feature (most blog software does).  RSS auto discovery lets applications such as the Firefox browser know there's an RSS feed on your site. Then the application can alert the user that there is a feed to subscribe to.

With an RSS feed you can develop audience loyalty and extend your reach online. RSS is now a mainstream trend, and it is time to leverage your feed so that you don’t miss out on this opportunity. For detailed information about how to use RSS to expand the reach of your site visit the Yahoo Publisher's Guide to RSS.

Anita Campbell is a writer, speaker and radio talk show host who closely follows trends in the small business market at her site, Small Business Trends.