Don’t get a feed, get a blog

I didn’t write about Mash The State when I first heard about it, because the ambitions seemed embarrassingly modest: getting each council in the country to offer an RSS feed by Christmas. In 2009? – seriously?

And then I note that, of the three e-government super-sites – Directgov, Businesslink, NHS Choices, annual budget approx £30m each – only the NHS site offers RSS feeds (and even then, only a few). Directgov has recently started offering its first RSS feed, but if you look at the source code, you’ll note that the URLs all begin with slashes. In other words, they aren’t valid RSS. Or in other less diplomatic words, they’re useless. If a guid isn’t globally unique, then it isn’t a guid. Still, at least they’re trying. Businesslink doesn’t seem to have anything in RSS. At all.

Meanwhile, the rest of the web is racing ahead. I’m especially proud of the DFID Bloggers site in that regard: helpful as ever, WordPress offers pretty much every list available through the site as an RSS feed, if you know the right URL to call. Each category has an RSS feed. Each tag has an RSS feed. Each individual author has an RSS feed. Heck, you can even get search queries as RSS feeds: meaning, in effect, you can have a customised RSS feed of ‘every time that WordPress site mentions X’. All out of the box; at zero charge and zero effort. They just happen.

RSS continues to delight me as a website designer and builder. Recent WordPress releases have added some extra – undocumented? – tricks: for example, if you can construct the right URL query string, you can get an RSS feeds of all items except those from a certain category. (Clue: ‘cat=-1′.) And it’s going to get even better imminently, with the inclusion of the brilliant SimplePie, for consuming RSS, into the next WordPress release.

I’ve built entire sites like Real Help Now and onepolitics powered solely by RSS feeds from third-party sites. I’m even building a couple of WordPress sites now which will use their own internal RSS feeds to surface content, rather than me coding ‘proper’ PHP/SQL queries. It’s just easier. And when you’re doing something as an outsider because it’s easier than the ‘proper’ internal method, you know we’ve reached somewhere significant.

The truth is, if your website still isn’t offering an RSS feed, you’re falling further and further behind the rest of the web, and you’re depriving yourself of the magic which eager geeks might bring to your content. But before you go spending money adding an RSS feed to, say, your press release pages – don’t. There’s a content management solution which is optimised for delivering text documents on a rolling basis, presented chronologically. You’re looking at it.

9 thoughts on “Don’t get a feed, get a blog

  1. Quite right. There simply isn’t an excuse for missing RSS feeds from major government sites, even though suppliers still don’t seem entirely clear on how or why to add it to client sites*. One small triumph from my agency days was getting RSS into a client’s site, and making it autodiscoverable, which is also important. It wasn’t in the spec, it hadn’t been paid for, the client hadn’t asked for it, the junior developer working on the enterprise CMS had to learn how to build an RSS feed… but dammit, you can’t have a useful news page without it. WordPress makes it easy, but it’s not rocket science whatever tool you’re using.

    *Don’t look too hard at my current organisation’s RSS feeds. They’re being fixed ;)

  2. There is no excuse. I managed to hack one into a 10 year old cms in my last job… Why? I thought it was important to be upfront and use the latest tools. I think the confusion is in where to carry rss, and what value it gives. But sometimes applying new, easy, technologies are a no-brainer. It’s like putting indicators on a car rather than flapping your hand out of the window… can’t imagine Ford agonised over whether to do it or not.

  3. Choices offers dozens of feeds, but there’s not a central listing as it has so many different types of content. There is a feed for all new Live Well articles, all new Behind the Headline articles, all new blog posts (and for each individual blog too) and for every hospital profile which people can comment on ensuring anyone interested knows exactly what people are commenting on. There are feeds for the latest videos and tools too. That’s pretty much the whole site covered. The only areas I can think of which don’t are Medical Advice Now which is the NHS Direct area and Health A-Z which is the health encyclopaedia section.

  4. Good stuff Caspar, although it’s more of a production focus than a patient focus. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if, for example, asthma sufferers could get a feed of anything new related to asthma, regardless of which section it gets published in? Just a thought… :)

  5. Well said. It does seem astonishing to me that some major business websites have so-called “blogs” but they are built on HTML pages. Of course there is no ability at all to leave comments on them either.

    The joy of RSS is that your readers can choose to receive your updates via RSS reader or by email. There are also options to have your text read out loud eg via the Feedblitz email delivery option or putting the feed through Talkr.com

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