Friday, August 30, 2002
Chatting with Brent
I had a good iChat yesterday with Brent Simmons, creator of the excellent NetNewsWire Lite. I gave him some feedback on his software, and he solved two problems for me, both of which were my own fault for not digging deep enough into the interface. We commiserated over a bug in Apple's HTML renderer that screws up how images appear, but that's beyond Brent's power to fix. He said that it'd take $50,000 for him to make a Windows version. Darn, I don't have that much. Maybe I'll have to buy myself a copy of Visual Basic for Dummies and become a programmer.

We also discussed the annoying ways in which sites screw up their RSS XML feeds. Slashdot, for example, only provides the headlines of their stories, nothing else. This would be adequate if the headlines are descriptive, but often they are not, making that RSS channel almost worthless for anything other than product annoucements.

On the other end of the spectrum is my RSS feed, amongst many others, who provide the entire story in XML. I understand why the big publications don't do that, they want to drive browser traffic to their sites to generate ad revenue, but there's no reason for the little independent weblogger not to syndicate their entire stories. I'm not concerned over the number of people visiting this site, I just want people to read my little rantings, so I can feel self important and think I'm reaching an audience. Obviously, from looking at the lack of comments on what I write, I'm not reaching a large audience, but you have to start somewhere.

So here, in no particular order, are my tips/demands of web sites that publish in RSS, to make life easier for the reader who is using NetNewsWire, AmphetaDesk, or Radio Userland to aggregate their news:

  • Publish as much as possible in your RSS feed, especially if you are not an overtly commercial site
  • If you are not going to publish the entire story in your feed, at least give us a few sentences from the first paragraph.
  • If you are not going to publish the first few sentences, at an absolute bare minimum, come up with the most descriptive story title possible.
  • Give each story a title, yes, I know it's hard to be witty with each story, and you can quickly run out of puns, so just settle for being descriptive when you're not feeling clever.
  • Don't re-work your story 10 times a day. It's good to catch typographical errors and omissions, and you want to add updates later if more information comes to light, but don't compulsively edit everything you write, over and over, especially after an hour or more has gone by. It's a big let down when you find out that the new stories your news aggregator is serving up for you are the same stories you've already read twice today, only with one sentence changed. While they may stay around for a long time, weblogs have an ephemeral writing style, grammatical errors and awkward sentences are usually forgiven. Resist the urge to be a perfectionist. Cnet and Dave are the two worst offenders in my list of feeds.
  • If your RSS feed doesn't include the HTML for the links, don't make a post like this: "Wow, check this out, isn't it cool?" When that story is published in RSS, not having the link turns that item into a worthless sentence, requiring the reader to launch a web browser, visit your site, and find the actual cool link that you want them to follow. However, it's much more likely that the reader is simply going to ignore that news item, and they'll never actually see what you find to be so cool.

    Now, I'm sure that there are technical, stylistic, and monetary reasons why many people don't want to publish following the way that I think it should be done. And I'll admit right now that I'm not an expert in this field, I'm just an end-user who wants to maximize the efficiency of this publishing method. But keep in mind, that all of these demands are made from the point of view of the reader of your weblogs, and following them will definitely result in more people reading your rants.

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