Tips for Publishing RSS feeds – Part 2

This is the second post in my Tips for Publishing RSS feeds series. If you missed the first part, you can find it here. Today, let’s just jump right into publishing tips 2, 3, and 4. As always, feel free to comment and add your thoughts on these tips. Also, for the sake of clarity, when I refer to a feed publisher I’m using the term in the broadest possible context including all bloggers. Many new bloggers don’t even realize they are syndicating their content via feeds when they start, so these tips are meant for everyone. Thus, some may be on the more general side.

2. Donâ??t hide your feed URL

As a web publisher, if youâ??re offering content as feeds, please donâ??t hide the subscription addresses. Take some time and consideration on where the feed URL is placed on the web site. All too often, much work is placed into offering feeds only to have the subscribe links and icons buried at the bottom of the web page or hidden somewhere in the sidebar. The method by which visitors can subscribe to your feed must be obvious.

Make it easy to find the feed URL on your web site (or anywhere else you promote your content such as your email newsletter). This one should be common sense, yet so many web sites treat the feed as an afterthought. Let’s make a few basic assumptions and assume that you want more feed subscribers.  If you want readers to subscribe to your feed, it has to be very easy to find. This sounds quite basic, but observe how random the placement of the feed URL has become. I’m not suggesting there should be a standard for the placement of the subscribe link. I am recommending, though, that as a publisher you make it very obvious to every visitor that you a have a better way for them to stay up to date with your content.

RSS feeds are starting to really move into the mainstream. Letâ??s not make it harder for users to adopt feeds by hiding the mechanism for subscription. To make this easier, most new web browsers provide visual cues in the browser when feeds are available on a web page. This feature is referred to as auto-discovery. To take advantage of this functionality, be sure to use auto-discovery code on each web page that has a feed.

The auto-discovery code is simply a line of HTML placed between the <head></head> tags of each web page that tell the browser what feeds are associated with the site. Here is an example:

<link rel=”alternate” type=”application/rss+xml” title=”RSS” href=”http://www.feedcraft.com/feed/evolvepoint/
EvolvePoint+News”>

By implementing auto-discovery, you make it much easier for visitors to find and add your feed. This process is so easy, I’m now accustomed to looking at the far right side of the address bar in Firefox when I’m looking to subscribe to a site’s content. Why? It’s a consistent location in the browser. One click and the feed is added to my reader. This ease of use is what you want as a feed publisher.

Finally, be sure to ask your visitors to subscribe. Another no-brainer, right? Well, not quite. Every web visitor still does not know what “subscribe” or “syndicate” or “feed” even means. Placing a prominent text link or an image with the feed URL is a great start, but it may still not be enough. Just as email marketers have pioneered and tested the method of attracting email subscribers, feeds are no different. Make an explicit call to action on your web site for readers to subscribe to your feed, giving them a few of the great reasons to do so.

3. Pick a single feed specification

This issue is starting to fade away, but not quite fast enough. Even if you have you content available for syndication in multiple formats, don’t give you web visitors the option to choose between them. The average visitor to your web site doesn’t know the technical differences or benefits between feed formats such as RSS 2.0 or Atom 1.0. They donâ??t know the differences nor should they even care. The only result of having multiple feed formats displayed is more confusion on the part of potential new subscribers. You don’t want to drive them away in frustration.

If you must offer multiple feeds formats, do it through auto-discovery code. Those subscribers who have a preference will still have the choice when they subscribe to your feed, while the average user will not likely notice the difference. 

Offer one type of feed on your web site. Pick a format you prefer and go with it. I’m not here to promote one over the others. If your publishing software offers you multiple versions, simply pick the most recent of either RSS or Atom and you canâ??t go wrong with any of the available feed readers out there.

The feed specification doesn’t matter to the subscriber as they will still be getting the same essential content regardless.

4. Check the validation of your feed

Whether youâ??re coding your feed by hand or generating feeds through your blog or content management system, be sure to check that the feeds are valid according to the specification you use. An easy way to check feed validation is to use a free service like FeedValidator or the W3C Feed Validation Service. Simply enter your feed URL into the box, click submit, and youâ??ll receive a full report your feedâ??s validation. If there are any warnings or errors, these validation services will point them out and explain some likely causes for the issues. Fixing some of the problems you may find, though, is beyond the scope of this post. That being said, it’s better to know what the issues are rather than being ignorant of their existence. Often, the problems you’ll find are warnings that may cause some subscribers problems, but the feed is still valid. You may need to take the report and either do some research on a what to fix or hand it off to a competent developer for the solution.

More posts in the series:

Tips for Publishing RSS feeds series – Part 1, Part 3

Tom currently works in developer relations for IBM Watson. A serial entrepreneur, he's been the founder of numerous startups including Investify and StatsMix, a Techstars alumni company. Tom lives outside Boulder, Colorado and in his free time he's an avid rock climber, skier, and trail runner.

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