The Blogger’s Guide To RSS News Feeds

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RSS feeds and blogging

RSS news feeds have traditionally been closely associated with blogs and are the preferred way of consuming content for some. People that consume a lot of information and want a simple and fast overview tend to use RSS news readers. RSS never broke into the mainstream though and is on the decline due to the rise of Twitter, Facebook and other social media. This post will cover news feeds, news readers and how bloggers can get more out of the RSS technology.

News feeds, news readers and the decline of RSS

RSS news feed allows your subscribers to see when you have added new content to your blog. If they are using an RSS feed reader your visitors can consume the latest content from you, as soon as its published, without having to visit your site. RSS stands for ‘Really Simple Syndication’. If you use WordPress to publish your content, you automatically also publish an RSS news feed. Any WordPress blog that you run will have an RSS feed by default at this address: http://yourdomain.com/feed/.

In general, the only thing your visitors need to get your RSS feed is something called a news reader. This is a software that checks the feeds and lets you read any new articles that have been added. One of the most popular web based readers these days is Feedly. Another option is the Digg Reader. Most browsers also have many RSS feed add-ons such as RSS Ticker for Firefox.

RSS and the use of feed readers has been declining over the last few years. It is not a sign that people read less but more of a sign of a shifting way people read and consume content online. People now spend most of their time online being on their favorite social network, be it Facebook (for majority), Twitter, or Pinterest or any other site. They use these same sites to get their content from and to discover new content on. Increasingly big number of people now find your content through social networks instead of through RSS which makes feeds a little less important for your overall distribution strategy.

Partial vs full feeds

Good thing about your news feed is that your content gets consistent and loyal readership from people that prefer to consume content through feeds. Bad thing about your RSS news feed is that the typical subscriber reads your content within the newsreader without visiting your blog. This can result in lower number of visits to your site, lower number of ad impressions and decreased revenue.

Some bloggers are concerned that subscribers to their RSS feed would never visit their sites, so they have their feed to show only partial. You do this in your WordPress admin by going to Settings, then Reading and selecting “For each article in a feed” to show “Summary”. This means giving a teaser of the post in the RSS feed, and letting the reader click on it to read the rest of the story directly on the site. Partial feeds can be annoying and can turn visitors away from subscribing though. Full RSS feeds gives the subscriber the choice of reading in the feed or visiting your blog.

The choice is yours really. Leaving the feed to show in full text will not make any big difference to your numbers in my experience but might work in your favor as some of the influential users still prefer using RSS feeds to get their information and you having the full feed could have an impact on them subscribing and following.

WordPress reading settings

Using Feedburner is not recommended

One way that you can enhance your default WordPress RSS feed is to use a feed management provider. This allows you to see the stats on how people consume your RSS feed, publicize the number of your subscriber and let your visitors subscribe to your site via email to get all the new content delivered to their inboxes.

The most popular provider is Google’s Feedburner. Feedburner has not been updated for several years and it is uncertain for how long Feedburner will be let standing or how long it will still function properly. The API has been shut down, the blog and Twitter accounts are no longer updated and there is no more customer support. The service has not been reliable recently either so I do not recommend you to use Feedburner. My blog feed stopped pulling in the latest posts so it was the time to move.

Best Feedburner alternatives

  • The default RSS news feed in WordPress is the best free alternative to Feedburner and I now use this option. By using the default feed you don’t rely on a third party service. and you also get the option to use some of the plugins to improve it. If you install Feed Statistics plugin you can get stats on how many people consume your RSS feed. Simple Feed Stats is an alternative plugin solution.

Now we are left to find a solution for email subscribers if you wish to build a mailing list or have your visitors get your content directly in their inbox. Two of the interesting options are:

  • Jetpack Subscriptions – It works great but is a limited solution. You do not have detailed stats or even the email addresses of your subscribers either. You cannot send exclusive emails to your subscribers but you cannot do this in Feedburner either so it is fine for some bloggers.
  • Mailchimp – I try to send some exclusive emails as well so this is what I use now. It is very customizable and advanced. It has a feature called RSS to Email which does what it says. It sends the latest content from your RSS feed to your email subscribers. It also allows you to import all your email subscribers from Feedburner. It is free as long as you have less than 2,000 subscribers and send less than 12,000 emails per month. This should cover majority of newbie bloggers.

Delete Feedburner, export your email list and permanently redirect your feed

If you are already on Feedburner I advice you to switch. I have done this process and luckily it is very simple. The only thing you have to note is that your email subscribers will not move when your delete your feed, which means that you have to manually export them and import them into your new mailing list service such as Mailchimp.

Export your email subscribers. In your Feedburner feed settings go into “Publicize” in the top navigation and in the left side navigation select “Email Subscriptions”. On this page scroll down towards the bottom where the “Subscriber Management” section is and click on “View Subscriber Details”. This will open the option to Export as a CSV file. Do this and save the CSV file.

Feedburner subscriber management

Save your new feed URL in your Feedburner feed settings. To do this you go into your Feedburner feed, click on “Edit feed details” and in “Original Feed” field make sure to add the new feed URL. If you want to use the default WordPress feed the URL would be yourdomainname.com/feed/. When done click on “Save Feed Details”.

Save new feed details

Now click on the “Delete Feed”. Make sure to tick on “With permanent redirection” in order to redirect all your subscribers to your new feed. To save click on “Delete Feed”. This is it, your Feedburner feed now redirects to the new feed URL and you do not have to scared of Feedburner failing you. Note that it might take few hours until your feed URL will also be updated in all the different feed readers.

Delete Feedburner feed

Best ways to promote your RSS feed

  • Have a link to your feed very prominently, above the fold usually, on all of your posts and pages. For example you can put it into your sidebar or into your footer. Alternative option is to put subscribe buttons at the bottom of each post so when a visitor has finished reading a post they now get the option to also subscribe to you for more updates.
  • I have mentioned the Comment Redirect plugin that redirects your first time commenters to a special “Thank You” page. What you can do is you can include your RSS feed link on that page as well and ask your commentators to subscribe to you.
  • Use the What Would Seth Godin Do plugin. This plugin uses cookies to treat new visitors differently than returning visitors. So for example for your first time visitors you can leave a “Welcome” message on top of your posts where you not only welcome them to the site but also ask them to subscribe to you so they can get all the latest content you publish. For full list of recommended plugins go here.
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