The Quality of RSS Feeds

Ever since I fully grokked the value of RSS, Really Simple Syndication (something I attribute to discussions with my friend Chris Pirillo) I’ve been learning more about what makes an interesting and valuable RSS feed.

My own sites offer a number of different RSS feeds, including this very weblog, The Intuitive Life, and Ask Dave Taylor, but while they’re all in perfect RSS syntax, I’ve found that it’s not always easy to ensure that the content within the feed is of good quality.

Among the 50 or so different RSS feeds that I subscribe to and track in the wonderful NewsGator Web Edition web-based aggregator, I have one feed that’s supposed to keep me up-to-date on postings on a Wiki.

In case you don’t know what a Wiki is, I’ve written about these before on my weblog, in the cheerily titled Can someone explain to me what’s to love about Wiki’s? Whether or not a Wiki is useful isn’t the point, though. What I want to mention here is that the RSS feed of a Wiki seems to be tough for programmers to automatically create. Why, I’m not sure, but the RSS feed from this particular Wiki is so awful that I inevitably have to click through to the site to figure out what on earth is new. Not only is this frustrating, but it defeats the very purpose of having an RSS feed in the first place!

So it was interesting and, yes, serendipitous when I read a typically cogent message from my pal Bill French on RSS Quality earlier this evening. Take a second and click through to read his thoughts.

I don’t know FeedFire very well, but I couldn’t agree more strongly when Bill pleads that a feed should be about something in the same way that I believe that a press release should be news, about something for the press, something interesting and worthwhile.

For RSS to really take off, and for us all to be able to keep up-to-date on more news and more information in a simple and non-complex manner, I think it’s imperative that we all try to improve the quality of our feeds. Even if it’s just one data stream at a time.

5 comments on “The Quality of RSS Feeds

  1. What *I* find useful in a feed is a FULL FEED! It’s very frustrating to read the first few sentences and then to be left hanging.
    I track about 150 blogs. I don’t have time to visit them all; that’s why I use an RSS aggregator (NetNewsWire if anyone cares).
    Unless the snippet is very compelling (and few are) I simply miss whatever brilliance you and other partial feed providers have to say. I couldn’t find your email address, Dave, so I decided to read this full posting so I could leave a comment. But yours is not the only blog that I only see parts of. No offense, you’re worth subscribing to, but not worth clicking through (at least not for every post).
    Anyway, you asked what makes a good feed, and my answer is, if you were good enough for me to subscribe, please be good enough to give me the whole thing via RSS.

  2. Great comment, Mike. I don’t agree with your perspective entirely, though, because I think that there are two reasons why a site might choose to offer an RSS feed, and you’re only looking at reader convenience. I admit, that’s an important one, but the other reason to offer an RSS feed is as a teaser, as a way to drive traffic to the actual Web site. CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Slashdot, all of these sites use their RSS feed to disseminate a ‘highlight’ of each article, with the intent that you’d click through and read the full article if you’re interested. I liken it to the front page of the Wall Street Journal: 1-2 sentence summaries of the top stories in the paper, all of which lead to longer, more comprehensive articles.
    Does it bother me that not all of my RSS snippets are sufficiently engaging to entice you to click thru to the article? Not a bit. When I read the newspaper, I also don’t read every single article. But I *do* appreciate the chance to keep up on the main topics and to then know what people are talking about, what’s hot news, and if later in the day I bump into a specific topic, I’ll remember that I saw a teaser about that on Slashdot or similar. Then I can go back and read the article.

  3. I sort of figured that some sites used RSS as a pull, to draw traffic to their sites. I don’t like it, but I respect it. Let me refine my argument a bit, aided by your response. You mentioned that some sites offer summaries of articles. So far, so good. But, what most blogging software does is offer up a certain
    number of words. So I only added a bit of white space. Imagine if you were reading this in a newsreader; wouldn’t you at least like to finish the sentence before deciding whether to read the whole article or not? And, I’m not singling you out … it seems most blogging s/w behaves this way.
    So it’s not that I don’t understand, but the way summaries are offered by most folks, it’s actually a bit
    Nice discussion; I like your new icon also … it captures the Dave I remember quite well.

  4. I totally understand what you’re saying, Mike. Frankly, I wish I could specify a number of sentences in my RSS excerpt rather than just a number of words. That would go a long way to solving this problem (on the assumption that I put in the time to create “good” excerpts).
    As you say, though, there are two types of RSS feed, and I’m also building one where I’m using it as a traffic generation system for my actual Weblog. So even if I could have more granular control over the actual content in the feed, I’d still want to try and compel you to click through and read the entire entry. 🙂

  5. [I wish I could specify a number of sentences in my RSS excerpt rather than just a number of words.]
    MyST supports this idea. 😉
    [I sort of figured that some sites used RSS as a pull, to draw traffic to their sites.]
    I think you (we actually) have to be careful when assessing the reasons *why* Web developers provide headlines – it’s not *simply* about drawing people back into the site.
    – RSS utilization is difficult to measure and some sites simply wouldn’t exist without metrics for advertisers. Although many RSS providers would love to let you consume their content in the reader (a highly productive model), there is a) no easy way to advertise in readers, and b) no *acurate* model for measuring content utilization [in RSS feeds] for advertising metrics.
    – Content consumers use RSS to save time. This doesn’t mean they don’t want to read content on a site (the vast majority anyway). The benefit of the feed (headlines or not, and notwithstanding the high cost of surfing) is awareness without the costs of employing human pattern-matching skills to detect change. In this regard, RSS syndication should not be viewed as a solution for everthing (e.g., a relacement for threaded conversations or dialog).
    – The costs to serve RSS content is many factors more expensive than serving HTML. As such, it makes a lot of sense to keep the feeds tight and brief. Certainly, RSS readers should be smart about conditional gets and minimum refresh cycles, but the fact is – they aren’t very considerate when it comes to bandwidth issues.
    – Headlines-only feeds are sometimes the only sane approach because full-text items that flow out of pages where the title and synopsis remain constant, but the content is frequently updated, will cause a feed to require an update every time a reader hits it. This can actually work against the content provider and consumer (band-width issues aside). A feed that consistently indicates content updates for most items will soon be considered spam-like.
    Creating quality feeds is all about context, of which there are many more than we presently know. I plan to publish a feed about “feed contexts and quality”, so we’ll be aware of the possibilities (ironically through RSS). 😉
    Anyway – just my $.02.

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