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RSS Feeds: What They Are & Why They Matter

RSS Feeds: What They Are & Why They Matter

by Jessica Jones

If your website has a blog, it probably has an RSS feed. If your website is built on WordPress, it definitely has an RSS feed – whether you know what an RSS feed is or not, you’ve got one. If you’re scratching your head currently – maybe the orange and white symbol to the right is something you’ve seen before but you’ve never been sure what it meant – read on, let’s clear it up!

rssMany WordPress designs include a built-in link to the site’s RSS feed; at Slamdot we always make sure it’s included for sites with active blogs. Occasionally we have clients ask about it, and sometimes they think that the link isn’t functioning properly, as clicking on it leads you to a page of code. For example, take a look at Bill Roop Photography. On the right, under Get Social, you’ll see a “subscribe to our blog” link accompanied by that handy little orange and white symbol. If you click the link you’ll see a page of XML code that probably doesn’t mean anything to you.

So why is it important to make a link to a page of code available on your site? While RSS readers aren’t used by as many people as, say, Facebook, there is a strong base of people who swear by RSS, and if you want those people to read your blog you’d better make a feed available. Admittedly anecdotal evidence: when I launched my personal blog I didn’t originally include an RSS feed link, and one of the first comments I got was asking me to make one available, which I promptly did.

What is an RSS Reader?

RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication.” An RSS reader is a way to see updates from all of your favorite websites – everything from news sites to personal blogs – all in one place. Updates to every site you subscribe to will be displayed for you in the order that they were posted, so you can easily browse through the new content from all of the sites you frequent without having to actually visit those sites individually. Maybe there are twenty-five sites with content that you like to keep up with but visiting each of those sites separately is a bit of a chore. Maybe a few of those sites update less frequently – if a blog is only updated every month or so it can be easy to get out of the habit of checking back on it, even if you always enjoy the posts. Adding its feed to your RSS reader means you will always be notified whenever that blog is updated.

Some popular RSS readers are feedly, Flipboard, digg reader and The Old Reader. These services and others like them have differences in interface and functionality, but they all perform the same basic job: letting people easily keep track of many sites and sources all in one place.

But Does it Have To Just Look Like a Page of Code?

Not necessarily, but if you want it to look fancier you’ll need to dress it up a little. You can use a service such as Google’s Feedburner to replace the default feed page, making it appear a little more user friendly: take a look at this blog’s feed for an example. There are other services that perform a similar function, some with advanced analytics and built-in email marketing and social media integration – don’t expect to get that many features for free, however. If you decide to look beyond Feedburner you will probably end up either paying for more robust features (as is the case with FeedBlitz) or dealing with ads (as is the case with Feedcat).

Will fancying up your feed gain you more subscribers? It could, although most features of a fancied up feed are more for your own purposes – the analytics about your subscriber base, for example. Someone who uses an RSS reader regularly will know exactly what to do with a plain code feed and won’t be any less likely to subscribe to your blog than they would one with a dressed up feed.

Really All You Need To Do? Make Sure That Link is There!

This is an easy one, folks. If you decide to learn more about RSS feeds and possibly sign up for a feed service in order to get more out of yours, that’s excellent. Really, though, the most important thing is just to make sure that, if you have a blog, your feed is made easily available on your page. Doing so could keep your fresh blog content in front of readers who otherwise might forget to keep checking back for new posts.