Will Google Sidebar Tip the Odds in Favor of RSS Over E-mail? (GOOG)

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One of the most interesting aspects of Google Sidebar (actually the latest iteration of Google Desktop Search) is its approach to RSS, or Really Simple Syndication. In contrast to My Yahoo!, which requires users to add feeds manually to their home pages, Google Sidebar adds feeds from frequently visited web sites automatically. Analysis:

Until Google's release of Sidebar, RSS was severely limited. In Bill Burnham's advice to other bloggers, the early-adopters of RSS:

...only 11% of blog readers use RSS and 2/3rds of them don’t even know what RSS is. For Bloggers trying to build a subscription base of readers that’s not good news. It means that on average only 1 out of every 9 visitors to a blog is going to be able to subscribe to a blog via RSS. Unless you have another option to regularly reach such readers, they are going to be left out in the cold.

As it happens, there is another option and that option is none other than good old reliable e-mail. While e-mail may not be as sexy as RSS, you can bet that close to 100% of blog readers will have an e-mail account and know what it’s used for...

All that said, over the long term RSS will triumph as e-mail subscriptions to blogs do not scale well and RSS will become much more ubiquitous and user friendly (thanks largely to MSFT’s decision to embed RSS into Vista), however in the short term I think it’s hard to argue that e-mail isn’t a far more accessible and practical way of allowing the vast majority of readers to subscribe to a blog.

Although he doesn't say so, Bill Burnham neatly identifies why Google's implementation of RSS is so compelling: you don't need to know what RSS is, you don't need to know how to find an RSS URL or what to do with it - you just get updated headlines from the sites you most frequently visit. As I commented in Four Implications of Google Sidebar,

The pendulum is swinging in favor of small, niche web publishers away from larger publishers. First, the cost of Web publishing has fallen to practically zero, allowing the creation of single-subject Web sites. Second, search engines favor niche sites over more general sites. And third, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) allows users to read and track multiple topic-specific web sites when previously that wasn’t easy.

One key innovation in Google Sidebar will further propel this trend: Google Sidebar automatically adds to your Sidebar RSS feeds from Web sites you frequently read. This is a significant improvement over My Yahoo, where users are forced to look for "Add to My Yahoo" buttons on Web sites, to search for RSS feeds themselves, or to choose from Yahoo’s pre-selected directories.

How successful is Google sidebar at adding feeds in practice? Early reviews are mixed. Walter Mossberg, the influential personal technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal, wrote:

There are a couple of drawbacks in this first version. Some modules gather information automatically by observing what you do on the Web and trying to guess what you'd like to see in the sidebar. A lot of the guesses were off base.

Theresa Carey and Kathy Yakal, who write the Electronic Investor column for Barron's, write (paid subscription required):

A vertical ladder of boxes contains very brief snippets of data like stock prices, weather, news pulled from the Web based on what's hot there and what you like, and a list of pages you've visited. This is all, of course, customizable, which makes it more palatable once you've jettisoned some of the less useful feeds [my emphasis], but it still takes up desktop real estate.

In most cases, there's too little information to be useful (though you can pop out an expanded window). Some of the add-ins -- like a system monitor, task list and gdTunes, which lets you control the iTunes music player -- are better than the standard items that Google chose to include.

Despite early teething problems (perhaps Google Sidebar takes longer than appreciated to add the "right" feeds), Google's approach to RSS will spread. Anecdotal evidence: in the short time that Google Sidebar has been available, it already accounts for 3-7% of the RSS subscriptions to the Seeking Alpha Network blogs. No doubt this smarter, more user-friendly approach to RSS will be adopted by Microsoft, Yahoo, Mozilla and Apple in time.

Then the real questions will be asked:

  • What are the privacy issues raised by tracking users' web surfing behaviour, even on a desktop application?
  • Will automatic addition of RSS feeds lead to a new spamming industry, involving attempted redirection to spammers' web sites?
  • Which publicly-traded Internet companies are the greatest potential losers of the gradual demise of email content delivery and marketing?

Related articles:
Google Sidebar - Product Details
Four Implications of Google Sidebar
Reactions to Google Sidebar

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