Sunday 17 May 2009

RSS: Learn To Burn...

If you are regularly publishing any kind of content online, then you are probably also providing an RSS feed. (If you've been living in a cave for since 2005 and never heard of it, then you should read this introduction to RSS.)

RSS is a tricky thing to measure, requests are not tracked like normal webstats, and are commonly anonymous or via a proxy. The frequency of requests is dependant on the user's feed reader and could be daily, weekly, hourly or even every minute (or anything in between). This is why it's important to have a good grasp of how much bandwidth and processing resources your RSS feeds are using.

RSS Caching

The easiest way to offset the processing cost is to cache your feed. Depending on your site's publishing schedule and implementation, the caching period and method used will be different. The basic idea is to dump your feed into a file and serve that.

On each request check if the cache file exists and if it is younger than 15 minutes. If not then build the feed and dump it into the cache file, ready for the next request. Depending on the frequency of requests, this can reduce your feed building resource cost considerably.

Introducing FeedBurner

Feedburner has been providing RSS feed management tool since 2004. By October 2007, they reportedly hosted over a million feeds for 584,832 publishers. In June 2007, FeedBurner was acquired by Google Inc., and shortly after two of their popular PRO services (MyBrand and TotalStats) were made free to all users. By August, 2008, Google had completed migrating FeedBurner into its group of services.

FeedBurner works very well with the major blog publishing sites, but it's also worth investigating if your site is standalone.

The initial payoffs of using FeedBurner is that they can help you get a handle on the size of your subscription base, and will cache and serve your feed, thereby absorbing much of the processing and bandwidth costs.

There has been quite a bit of discussion about the accuracy of subscriber stats provided by the FeedBurner service. As stated earlier in this article, RSS stats are problematic due to the plethora of clients and the complications of anonymity and proxy services. Having said that, they service offered is a lot better than no stats and in my opinion the benefits outweigh the cost many times over.

Don't Lose Your Audience

One of the important tips about integrating FeedBurner is to make sure that your subscribers still subscribe to your site's feed URL and are redirected to your FeedBurner URL. This way, if you ever decide to drop the FeedBurner service, then you won't leave your subscribers stranded with a defunct FeedBurner URL. Google has been quite open about this issue, if you know where to look.

If you are redirecting traffic you need to make one small change to your FeedBurner options to make this work properly - but it's not that easy to find... Click on the Optimize tab for your feed, and then BrowserFriendly in the Services menu. At the bottom of the form, in the Content Options section, there is a link with the text "Use your redirected feed URL on your BrowserFriendly landing page". Click on that and then enter your site's feed URL.

This change should result in most subscribers using your site's URL, however, this still doesn't seem to work correctly with Firefox's Live Bookmarks. I haven't found a decent work around for this yet, or even much evidence that it is an issue, but for me it never works, so be aware. Even the "ClearFeed" landing page is somewhat confusing when Live Bookmarks are used, which is a concern considering Firefox's popularity.

FeedBurner Pros vs Cons

  • Free stats/caching service
  • Reliable infrastructure
  • Simple to use

  • Stats are tied to a single Google login
  • Subscription stats allegedly fluctuate
  • Some Firefox Live Bookmarks issues

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