RSS Feed Basics

RSS Feed BasicsLet’s talk RSS feeds! This post covers some basics about what they are and how they’re used, and also includes a few options for managing blog feeds.

RSS Feed Basics

The gist of a feed is that it’s a tool used to automatically push updates from a stream of content out into the world, and then various services and programs exist that organize those updates and notify readers/ interested parties. There are a couple of different formats of feeds, of which RSS is one, but in general a feed is your content, reformatted, and automatically checked for updates on a regular basis.

The key benefit to the end user is that they don’t have to remember to visit a site to get new content, and the benefit to the content creator is that you get to automatically push your content to the subscriber rather than drawing them via publicizing each time you add content through more manual means.

In the e-commerce world, feeds often come up in the context of products – it’s often possible to subscribe to feeds for categories of products so that you are notified when new products are added.

Another example is Pinterest board feeds – you can actually subscribe via RSS to someone’s Pinterest boards (all of their pins across all boards or individual boards) by adding /feed.rss to the end of the url. For example:

http://pinterest.com/zoerooney  becomes  http://pinterest.com/zoerooney/feed.rss

Until Pinterest opens up a public API, feeds are really the only way to automatically pull content from Pinterest elsewhere, and they’re what the current set of Pinterest blog widgets and Facebook tools use to show your pins off Pinterest itself.

The most familiar use case is blog feeds, where posts are broadcasted via RSS feed. The end reader uses a feed reader tool (such as Google Reader) to regularly check the various feeds they subscribe to for updates, pull in all those updates, and format them into something easy to read.

Handling WordPress Blog Feeds

I’m sure there are a lot of ways to handle blog feeds that I’m not familiar with, but for this post I’ll stick to a couple I recommend. Options 1a and 1b are mutually exclusive, option 2 can be used in tandem with either of them.

1a. FeedBurner

FeedBurner is a free service from Google that acts as an intermediary between your native feed URL (see 1b) and the reader. There are a few paid alternatives, but in my opinion the free services are good enough that paying for a service is unnecessary. It has a few benefits that arguably outweigh the poor support and occasional glitches:

  • The subscription URL is not tied to your domain name, so if you ever change your domain name or the URL of your blog, your readers will have uninterrupted service without needing to manually subscribe to the new URL.
  • FeedBurner provides stats on subscribers, readership, etc. These are not necessarily that accurate at any given point in time, according to popular lore and potentially outdated blog articles (I didn’t find anything more recent that seemed as reliable in a quick search, so I can’t confirm or deny the accuracy of this post).
  • When readers subscribe via FeedBurner, they’re able to easily select from a variety of common readers and formats. FeedBurner also provides some other options for publicizing your feed.

One of the most common complaints with FeedBurner is that it isn’t up to date with the latest posts. Within FeedBurner, you want to make sure you have PingShot enabled (in the Publicize section), and you can also use the ping tool to ask FeedBurner to update its connection to your blog.

If at some point you do want to move away from FeedBurner after using it for awhile, there’s no completely painless way to do so. If you delete the feed, you can get 30 days of redirection to the new feed URL (you could just use WordPress’ regular feed service, although you don’t get the same stats from that). During that 30 day period, you’d need to remind people to change their subscriptions, otherwise when the 30 days are up they will stop getting the feed.

There was a recent flurry of online activity about FeedBurner going out of existence, which seems to have been based on their announcement that stand-alone FeedBurner accounts were being converted to Google accounts, but that’s inaccurate. According to Google itself (in that same announcement post), it isn’t going anywhere.

1b. Native WordPress Feed URL

WordPress creates your feed URLs automatically (assuming your theme is coded correctly), and your subscribers could use those URLs directly in their feed reader to subscribe. Without FeedBurner, depending on the browser, they may not be able to just click a button and see easy subscription buttons – instead they may need to enter your site URL in to their reader to add your site.

The major benefit to the native feed URL is that it’s always up to date and there’s no pinging or resetting required.

On the down side, it is tied to your URL which can make changes tricky and cause you to lose readers if you ever do need to change the URL. It also doesn’t have the same stats and publication options built in, although there are a few plugins that purport to add those features, such as WordPress Feed Statistics or Simple Feed Stats (neither of which I’ve tried myself).

2. Subscribe by Email

For people who don’t want to subscribe with a feed reader, email can be a good alternative. I would typically suggest offering both options.

If you’re using FeedBurner for RSS, you’ll probably want to use their built-in email support. There are various WordPress plugins that make this super easy to add to your blog sidebar.

Otherwise, you can use Automattic’s Jetpack plugin, which has a solution for email subscriptions to both post feeds and comments for individual posts (a nice feature for giving commenters the option to stay engaged in the discussion on a post-by-post basis).

Alternately, you can set up mailing list providers such as MailChimp to work with RSS feeds. This is a particularly good solution if you want to provide users with the option to subscribe to a more general email list at the same time as they’re subscribing to your blog posts, but you should make sure that that is, in fact, an option. You can do that by creating groups within your list, giving readers the ability to separately select subscriptions to the blog and any other newsletter content you’re providing.

Extra Features & Customizations

In addition to these basic setup choices, since feeds are basically structured content there are a bunch of other add-on features and customizations that can be done:

  • Add specialized content (anything from footer/ copyright text to additional content to discount codes) just in the feed version of posts
  • Limit the posts that appear in the feed by category or other criteria
  • Specialized styling for feeds (especially when done via email through MailChimp)

Now that you understand the basics, let us know if you have any unanswered questions about RSS feeds and how to maximize their value for your site. Are you offering your readers an easy way to subscribe? Are you maximizing the potential of your subscribed audience?

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