Does your website know its RSS from its elbow?

If you’ve been thinking about whether to publish RSS feeds on your site, here are four questions you should know the answers to.

Which feeds should I publish?

Obvious options are your news and sport headlines. Regular columnists, and any kind of blog or diary style content, makes great feed fodder.

You can make your feeds as broad or specific as you want – but remember that RSS is a way of delivering personalised content.

Break feeds down into logical choices. Consider whether someone interested in your book reviews will also be interested in the recipes from your cooking section. Chances are they won’t, so provide a separate feed for both.

RSS is all about allowing the user to choose the niche of news or features they are interested in. Take BBC Sport’s football coverage. They provide an overall sports feed, a football feed, a football feed per division or competition, and then feeds on an individual club basis. They all contain the same stories – just packaged in different topics and sub-topics.

You’ll also need to decide whether to publish full content in the feed, or a snippet. While a lot of people prefer full content feeds, advertising revenue dictates that you’ll probably want RSS to entice people to visit your site with snippets. Your feed should probably only include the headline, URL, and opening paragraph of each article.

How do I publish feeds?

Most off-the-shelf content management systems will already have RSS templates available, but you might need to nudge your IT department to build one for your system.

There are clear specifications of exactly what should be in the feed. But rather like high-definition DVDs, there are competing formats. RSS 2.0 and Atom are the most popular. Luckily, virtually all software supports both these standards. You won’t go far wrong opting for one or the other.

You can also get a third party to help publish your feeds. The Sun and the Mirror both use Mediafed, while the Daily Mail uses Feedburner. This has the added advantage of providing you with metrics about usage.

Don’t forget to make a smaller version of your logo to associate with the feed. Feed-reading software and services often display this next to the content – reinforcing your brand.

How do I let my audience know?

Once you’ve made it all happen, there are three principle ways of informing your users.

1) Make it automatically discoverable. Put a <LINK> tag pointing to the address of the relevant RSS feed in the HTML of your pages. Browsers such as Firefox, Internet Explorer 7 and Safari detect this, notifying the user with small orange feed icons.

2) Add an icon. The industry has settled on a standard icon to indicate that an RSS feed is available. This should link to the relevant feed for the page it appears on. Alternatively, RSS readers such as Google Reader, My Yahoo!, or Bloglines provide graphical buttons which can be placed on your page. These enable users to subscribe to your feed with one click, while AddThis.com provides buttons allowing users to subscribe via a multitude of services.

3) Provide a text help link. It is still worth taking time to provide a friendly page highlighting the content you have available and explaining the RSS concept. The BBC News RSS Help page is an excellent example of this.

Why bother?

Well, everybody else is doing it, so why wouldn’t you? All of the major national newspapers and international news services such as CNN provide RSS feeds.

You can look at it as a free promotional channel. The cost of additionally providing online content in the RSS format is negligible, yet the potential benefits are great.

People using RSS tend to be avid web consumers, who want to get information quickly from a variety of sources. Get yourself in that mix.

A feed can also be used as a foundation for a host of web-based services such as desktop widgets, news tickers, and email alerts.

The opportunity isn’t for RSS to turn your regular online visitors into users who only look at the feed. The opportunity is to put your content before a new, busy audience. One who might rarely or never have visited your site, but who will happily scan and consume your content when it is presented to them via RSS.

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