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More On Making Feed Discovery & Subscription Easier

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Yesterday, I wrote how Dave Winer was calling for more consistency in how people can find and subscribe to RSS, Atom and other feed content and illustrated some of the troubles I've personally seen with this. The issue has developed since his call.

RSS Subscription Central? from ClickZ looks again at Dave's idea with comments in particular from Feedster and Weblogs Inc.

Feedster's Scott Rafer doesn't favor centralizing things as Dave does but instead wants a cookie-based approach, while Jason Calacanis from Weblogs likes the idea that there might be multiple subscribe buttons to help him reach out to those with relationships with different news aggregators.

Meanwhile, Yahoo's Jeremy Zawodny comments on the idea, finding Winer's proposal complicated and instead wanting some type of helper add-on or browser enhancement that would work when someone clicks on a feed link.

"The fact is that you click on an orange XML button and the browser does the wrong thing," he writes.

In particular, he means that you can click on a feed link and see it in your browser -- but it will be a mess of marked up code. What you really want to do is get the link somehow into your aggregator or newsreader.

For me, this means that I right-click on a link, then it's added to my NewsGator reader that operates within Outlook. For a My Yahoo user, it means copying and pasting the URL into the system using the "Add RSS by URL" feature, if you don't find it instead by searching for it via the "Add Content" feature or by clicking on a site's "Add To My Yahoo" button.

(The Tips to Add Content to Your Page instructions at My Yahoo explain more about the first two options, and you can see how the "Add To My Yahoo" buttons work on our own feeds page.)

Let's Start With A Common Icon...

A good start on all of this is to come back to the most basic thing -- come up with a common icon that everyone can use, so that even the newest person looking for feed content will recognize that it is offered. Here's an email I got from someone today that underscores this problem:

I'm new to RSS. I'm not sure whether my question makes sense, but there are a lot of web sites which I constantly check that don't have a RSS feed function. How can I RSS read them?

My answer? There's no easy way to even know if a site has a feed option. As I illustrated yesterday, sometimes they do, but the link might not be visible, might not be on the home page and certainly may not be presented in any consistent manner.

Personally, I've relied on Yahoo has a way to find feed content when I can't readily identify if it is offered. I just wish this was even easier for people to tap into. My Yahoo, How About A Feed Search Tab? post explains this more.

Fagan Finder has a nice page that provides some other discovery options you can try: Finding RSS Feeds. But such tools won't work if a site lacks a feed at all. (Last year, Technorati found only 31 percent of blogs have feeds -- and I'm sure the percentage is far lower when you broaden the scope to web sites in general).

The nice myRSS service that helped in these cases, by creating feeds for sites that lacked them, has gone away. I'm certain there are some new ones but don't recall any offhand. Got suggestions -- fire them my way, and I'll do a follow-up post.

Back to the icon issue, I'm all for the orange XML icons that many have used. Even better to change that simply to say "Feed" instead of XML.

...And Link The Icon To A Explanatory Page

What happens when you click on the icon? How about a link to a page that explains what feeds you offer and how to subscribe. That solves the billions of icons problem. If someone like Jason Calacanis wants to have feed links and icons for various aggregators, putting these all on one page is much easier than trying to squeeze them onto your home page.

Similarly, if someone offers multiple feed options, having a page listing all of these gives you more room to work. It also offers you the ability to more fully explain how and what feeds are, to those new.

News.com has a great news feeds page like this. I liked the format and presentation so much that I modeled our own feeds page on it. Click on our XML icon within the main SEW site, and it's this main feeds page you are sent to.

Whether we get a further evolution to some centralized server to handle feed subscriptions, some cookie-based approach or whatever is a bigger issue that isn't going to be decided soon. But agreement over an icon and the idea that clicking on the icon leads to a page of feed instructions? That could happen pretty quickly.

Meanwhile, Dave says he's gotten some vendor interest on his idea and recreated his original post to a new location, where people can comment further.


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