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Reading in RSS (is different)

Like a lot of people these days, I read a lot in RSS. And I love reading in RSS.

However, I don’t think a lot of people in publishing (or in magazines, perhaps?) can possibly do the same. It’s still sadly the case that when one says “RSS” in meetings, one gets a lot of head nodding and enthusiastic approval, and glazed eyes.

I subscribe to – quick head count – feeds from about 200 different sources. I get maybe 300-400 new items each day, which quickly backs up if I’m busy or away from RSS. I’m about to go on holiday and anticipate the 3,000 – 5,000 deluge I had last year (and which I only cleared recently).

This means I scan articles in my RSS reader (Vienna, since you ask). Which means that useful headlines summaries get read – useless ones don’t.

Given the amount of time and energy that goes into building any web site, I am amazed to see poor experience design in RSS. For example, the New Yorker – the New Yorker! – has an “everything” feed that is very hard to read in RSS:

New Yorker RSS Feed in Vienna

For all I know (and I’m sure I can think of at least one reader who will correct me), this is correctly formatted RSS. And I know that RSS (and support for standards in RSS readers) is emerging, and relatively early. But this is still bad experience for me for the following reasons:

  • It’s ordered alphabetically. This is the only feed I can think of that has this type of ordering – although this maybe because:
  • All items have exactly the same publication date (Today at 05:00). And there are no articles between this week’s articles, and last week’s. (At least the Guardian has the decency to stagger their “Weekend” articles over the course of the weekend). As a result, listing “by Date” (my preferred view so I can see what’s most recent) is pointless.
  • This one is the worst transgression and the one that provoked me to write this. Their headlines are so abstract, I have *no idea* what they are about. How would I know that “La Vida No Loca” was a review of Coldplay’s new album – without engaging my brain? Above and Beyond? What does that mean? I defy any of you to look through this list and just know what the article is about. Other than the cartoons one.
  • They only summarise the articles. I subscribe to a number of other New Yorker articles – The Book Bench; Sasha Frere-Jones; – and these (in a way I agree with, although I am sympathetic to the page-view ad model they need to encourage) extract the article in full in RSS.
  • Some articles don’t even have authors. They could at least just put “The New Yorker”. It looks a bit broken.
  • It could be my reader – I’ve had problems with Vienna whilst testing properly encoded feeds on our new Granta site – but the character encoding is causing quite a few errors. Or maybe they just have authors with very odd names.

As a point of comparison, here is the Guardian’s Technology feed (one of the few on this site to extract articles in full):

Guardian Technology RSS Feed viewed in Vienna

Much better, no?

I don’t even mind the ads being served in the RSS, but I was pleased that even the Guardian couldn’t get a click-through to work either – we had the same problem whilst trying to serve ads in RSS feeds using OpenX. (The problem is that OpenX depends on cookies. If anyone has a solution, please let us know in the comments below).

Finally, a feed that wins my current “worst of” prize.

Canongate RSS Feed in Vienna

Not only does the feed include test articles – which is forgivable – but the headlines and articles themselves are truncated to the point of being illegible without clicking through.

Sour Grapes aside – My point?

Increasingly, we experience web presences and (web) publishers in a variety of formats. It should be as important to you to insist that you test the experience of engaging with your site in RSS (even if you don’t understand what it is) – as it is to test it in Internet Explorer and Firefox, and on Mac and PC. You should also test it on mobile devices, and text readers – if visitors on mobile phones and with impaired vision (or search engines) are important to you.

It’s the details of using a site which make all the our experience, and increasingly these experiences happen in places other than the web site through a browser. I may not unsubscribe from a site with a bad RSS feed, but I may think a lot more of an organisation that bothers to make a good one.

Posted by Peter Collingridge in Uncategorized, Web.

Apt’s links for July 24th // Apt’s links for July 28th

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