Adding a more advanced RSS feed to your site

In my last post, I explained how you could use del.icio.us to add a simple RSS feed to your site. The benefits of this method mainly lie in your ability to quickly and easily add any Web page to your feed, particularly if you make use of the browser buttons available from del.icio.us. Just navigate to the page you want to include in your feed, click the button, and enter a title, description, and tags. This method also allows you to easily create many feeds, and add items to as many of the feeds as you need all at the same time.

While this method should work well for the average Web site owner looking to create an RSS feed, it might not be suitable for every purpose. The two primary limitations to using del.icio.us to create and publish your RSS feed are the lack of rich text editing, and the 255 character limit to the description field. Many users may want to include more information in their RSS feed, or include graphics, links, and other information. For these users, del.icio.us may not be the best solution.

However, before you start creating a detailed RSS feed with lots of custom information in the feed itself, you need to understand the wide variety of standards for feed readers. Most importantly, it is important to understand that many feed readers are unable to capture both the Web page and the feed details together. Most online feed readers will only capture the description you enter into your RSS feed’s description section, and will give the users a link they can click on to view the page that you’ve referenced in the feed’s URL section. Locally installed feed readers, on the other hand, may have any number of different ways to display this information. For example, the feed reader I use at home is the built-in RSS aggregator available in Mozilla Thunderbird. This feed reader allows me to choose whether I want to view the feed details for all of my feeds, or just view the Web page (which is not available when I’m offline). I don’t have the option to customize this for individual feeds, and I don’t have the luxury of viewing both automatically. This presents a problem for me, since I read most of the RSS feeds I’ve collected while I’m offline. If I set my preferences to automatically show the Web page, I get a blank screen when I’m offline. However, if I set my preferences to view the feed details only, I typically get only a short paragraph or two, and have to wait until I’m online to read more. There are other applications, however, that do a better job of handling the problem of how to deliver a Web page and an RSS feed together. My favorite is the Microsoft Outlook plug-in, IntraVnews. This handy plug-in is free for personal use, and manages to download the RSS feed details as well as a copy of the referenced Web page. This is particularly handy for news feeds, as the articles may not be available on the Web for a long time. But since they’ve been physically downloaded and embedded into an Outlook message post, you can read them whenever you want.

Understanding the different ways your viewers will see and interact with your feed is very important. For example, if you are creating a feed that often refers people to external Web sites, you need to understand that many of them may never see your RSS feed description, which explains why the link was chosen for your feed. In these cases, it might be useful to use the Awesome Highlighter recently featured on Lifehacker. This service allows you to send people to a unique URL that will display the page you want them to see, with the text you want them to see highlighted for them. It might not be as good as providing a brief description of the page, but it’s certainly better than nothing. Incidentally, the service is also good for providing a shortened URL to the page your referencing.

All of this is very important to understand if you’re serious about publishing an RSS feed, but it’s a bit beside the point for today. Since del.icio.us may not be the best solution for everyone’s RSS needs, I wanted to point out a way that you can create a free RSS feed that can contain more details, formatting, images, and other links (but try to remember that some people may never see all of the “extra” details you provide). If you need to provide a more detailed RSS feed, simply start a blog using one of the many free blogging tools available, such as Blogger.com, TypePad.com, WordPress.com, or the like. Once you’ve created your blog, you can easily add new posts with full rich-text capabilities. If you want to point the RSS feed to a location other than your blog, simply enter the appropriate URL into the “Link” field under your post title (at least, that’s where it is in Blogger…other services may vary, but should give you the option to specify a URL for your post). Your resulting RSS feed will simply refer to the Web sites you’ve entered, and no one will ever have to know that the feed originated with a blog, especially if you’re using FeedBurner to track your feed traffic.

Between del.icio.us and Blogger, anyone can quickly and easily create an RSS feed in minutes. And, if you follow the instructions in my last post, you can track how many people are subscribed to your feed, allow e-mail subscriptions, and enable visitors to your Web site to automatically “find” the RSS feed(s) you’ve made available.

If you’re still not sure about starting an RSS feed, here’s a quick tip….go ahead and start one using either of the two methods I’ve described (or both). Your feeds will never be noticed until/unless you start promoting them by telling people how to find them. So, if you need to practice a little bit before you’re ready to commit to creating a formal RSS feed for your site, you can!

Once you’re confident that your RSS feed will be a valuable tool for your site visitors, just embed the links to it on your site and let people start subscribing. One word of caution, though…don’t get too hung up on checking your feed’s stats on FeedBurner. If you have a personal or small business Web site, you’re not likely to get thousands of subscribers to your feed right away, if ever. The stats FeedBurner provides are simply interesting information, but unless you have some serious goals for your Web site, trying to keep too close a tab on your stats will just be a waste of time, and likely a huge disappointment. As I’ve said before, the average personal or small business Web site is never going to directly compete with the “big dogs,” so don’t go in believing that just because you have a Web site you’ll have thousands of people visiting your site every day.

That’s all for today. I hope you’re ready to create your RSS feed to start delivering your updates directly to the people who need to or want to know, rather than waiting for them to check in with your site.

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