Don’t Ignore Your RSS Feed

Posted on April 8, 2013

Sometimes, when redesigning a website, changes are required that break your existing URLs. This is bad, because all of the old references to these URLs — bookmarks and search engines — are now dead links. Most web developers know how to fix this using redirection; by configuring your platform, you can automatically redirect the old URLs to the new ones. This is awesome, because visitors won’t even notice the change (unless you mention it), and search engines will automatically update their databases.

The same holds true for news feeds. The other day, I happened to notice my feed for was no longer updating. Pitchfork has a habit of completely breaking their existing architecture every time they do a redesign. But this time there was no evident changes to the site, and no response on Twitter, so I had to track down their page of RSS links to update my RSS client.

Failing to maintain your site is bad, but breaking your RSS feed is worse:

  • A normal site visitor might see obvious changes in design or news announcements to tip them off. RSS feeds do not have this context.
  • Unlike with email newsletters and other “push” publishing, news feeds are automatically generated and pulled. Little or no work is needed from the developers or content writers.
  • If you are not actively tracking stats for the feed, you won’t see the downturn in traffic.
  • There may be no errors or other indication for users that something is wrong.

What this means is that if you are not paying attention, you are silently losing your audience. Maybe companies like Pitchfork don’t care; they have a big enough audience, and RSS users are typically in the minority, so who cares if a few dozen disappear? But I would contend that this is bad business, especially considering how incredibly simple it is to avoid:

  • If you are making changes to the URL, put a redirection in place. It’s simple, and costs nothing.
  • If it’s not a case of a simple URL change — for example, if you are combining or splitting feeds, or changing the format — add a message in the old feed notifying users of the changes, and where they can find the new feed.
  • If you use Feedburner, you can easily update or delete your feed through its interface.
  • Subscribe to your own feed. It’s amazing how rare this is.
  • At the very least, delete the old URL so a 404 error is triggered.

I’m writing specifically about RSS feeds here, but the same advice applies to any medium. Once you open up a publishing avenue — whether it’s a website, email, Twitter, RSS, or anything else — it makes little sense to ignore it afterwards. You have an interested audience — why make it hard for them?


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