Radu Cotescu's professional blog

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The Art of Web Feeds

Web feeds, as many of you surely know by now, represent a data format under which frequently updated content from various sources is provided to readers (the humans reading the content). The purpose of the web feed is therefore to inform the user of new or updated content originating from a source. Generally speaking web feeds contain HMTL mark-up for the content, on top of an XML document which is parsed by feed readers (the programs used to read web feeds).

Since a web feed is usually a standard feature for any web site that displays articles (by which we understand blog posts, news, press releases, etc.), the number of clients (software programmes) for this job has experienced a constant growth. From web applications, such as Google Reader, to desktop dedicated programs, such as Liferea, or Internet browsers, we have a multitude of ways for accessing web feeds. Because the primary function of the feed is to inform of the new content, the important attributes (sections) of the feed should be the title of the article in question, the author, date of publishing and the full text or the summarized one.

“To summarize or not to summarize? That is the question.”

What is more important for you and your readers: to serve them the full content (with the risk of them not being necessarily interested) or to give them just a hint of what you’ve published and let them to decide if they want to read it or not?

The advantage of offering the full content in the web feed is given by the fact that from a user’s standpoint the only action that he (or she) should perform is to open the reader and select your feed. Unfortunately this is also a disadvantage. Why? Because some of the content might be extending on a number of pages and some of the readers (the people) might not be interested in it, although the article’s category might be of interest. This leads to a cancelling of the benefits a feed might offer. I am sure that there are a lot of users who only read a small portion of the syndicated articles, which means that they have to get past the articles which are of no interest. This usually means scrolling over various amounts of content to select only the articles which are to be read in full.

Summarized feeds though offer only an introductory paragraph from the content itself. Sure, if the user needs to read more he (or she) has to access the source directly. But since the act of subscribing and receiving a feed’s content implies having access to the bid bag Internet, one more click for an interesting topic is just a small price to pay (both in effort and in time lost with the action). After all, your website has a nice theme for attracting readers (and probably you have invested time, money and energy on the user interface aspect of your site - web designers, CSS code, JS for user interaction, etc.). By not inviting the user to browse your website you loose not only traffic (although in recent times feeds are counted as an important communication channel with easy to follow traffic indicators), but the purpose of the shiny user interface. If all of your content is available through a web feed, why should we mind to visit it?

Personal experience

After several months of using a dedicated desktop application for syndicating the feeds I read I’ve switched to Google Reader. I won’t discuss here the advantages or disadvantages of one over the other. The end result in my case are 14 feeds under 5 categories (from geek stuff to more down to earth information). Out of the hundreds of articles which are published on a daily basis, I probably read about a quarter (maximum). This means that about 75% of the content to which I have access to I choose to skip over: either I am not interested (in which case I skip the content almost without retaining the title for more than 2 seconds) or I don’t think that the topic deserves more attention that what a short glimpse at one of its paragraphs might offer me. Imagine now the time lost with scrolling over full content from 75% of about 300 articles. Is it nice? NO! Is it reader-friendly? NO! This is why I prefer summarized feeds: I read the title to decide if the content is relevant and if so I don’t mind browsing to the source to read it all. I mean if I have the time to check what’s been published I am sure that I will make some time to read what’s interesting.

In conclusion…

Think of your users before putting the full content of your next article in the feed. There are chances that not all of your articles really hit the spot. By using summarized feeds you’ll more often than not win loyal and constant readers. Let them choose what they like from you instead of filling their screens with nonsense. Sure, they still have to click on the title to reach to your website. However, if your content is good, the readers will come by themselves.



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