Web Developer Class: Creative Uses for RSS Feeds

By Michael Rohde

Let's say you have a web site that is updated on a fairly regular basis, you have many, many pages that visitors read daily, and you'd like to promote all of your latest content on each of your content pages, including the home page. For example, the template for your content pages includes space in one of the columns for links to related content, featured content or new content.

There are a number of ways you can update this related content, including manually updating each and every page with new links every time you add new content. If your site is brand new and you only have five content pages, that idea is feasible. But after time your site will start to consist of 100's if not 1000's of pages. At that point, it will no longer be feasible to update each page by hand.

Another option is to start using some sort of Content Management System (CMS). But that topic is for another time and another article. This article will focus on creative uses of RSS feeds and how they are not just for subscribers. In fact, there are services and tools available that allow you to use an RSS feed to fake a CMS or the front page of a blog. To emphasize this point, the service I'm going to tell you about today includes a template option called, "Fake blog."

Feed Informer is a free service that opens a world of opportunities and approaches to RSS. Feed Informer provides a quick and simple four-step process in which you simply click and point your way to creating an automated feed for your site.

Before I get too far, I should point out that FeedBurner has something similar called, "BuzzBoost." This option allows you to republish your feed as HTML on any web page. I currently use this feature on my content pages, as it updates extremely quickly (maybe 10 minutes after I update my RSS XML file), and it allows a means for me to promote additional content. In conjunction with BuzzBoost, I also activated "PingShot," which notifies services whenever I post. Activating this feature should help speed up Feed Informer.

The one downside to BuzzBoost is the difficulty to format the output. The default format is a basic bullet list. You can choose how many items you want to appear in the list, you can give it a title, and you can pick how much of the description that you want to show along with other attributes. However, if you want to remove the bullets or change the font or the colors, you could be at a loss. FeedBurner does have a Help page that shows you how to customize the appearance, but it involves manually creating your own CSS. This is where Feed Informer steps in. They do the heavy lifting for you.

Feed Informer provides 12 different HTML templates that you can choose from. In addition, they also have a Flash template that scrolls your content items across the screen. The last template option you can pick from is called "Picture." From Picture, you can pick from eight different templates that will put some color and design into your Digest (Digest is another way of saying, "RSS feed output").

For my site, I stuck with the HTML template. At first, I went with "Smart Headline with Source." This template provides a very nice format, with designed arrows pointing at the title, the date, time and source of the publication and a short blurb. After some thought, I realized this design is better suited for publication on sites that are linking in. The reason for this is because having a link to the publication source is rather redundant. I don't need a link to my own site on the site itself. Plus, while the arrows looked nice, overall, this design took up a lot of space per entry, which resulted in a rather long and scrolling Digest.

After studying each template, I settled on "Fake Blog"-which, after all-is what I was creating. My home page now automatically refreshes each time I update my RSS feed. I no longer have to manually update my home page with new content. To make the most of this, I actually created three new feeds: one for Commentary articles, one for Reviews and one for Videos. I also kept my original feed as that is linked into Twitter, Facebook and other sources. So now instead of going through the laborious process of updating the front page HTML every time I publish a new article, I simply update the appropriate RSS XML file, copy and paste that update into my main RSS feed, publish and I'm done. Automating my front page is one of the better time saving features I've done for myself (patting myself on the back).

To get back on the topic of formatting Feed Informer… I still wasn't completely happy with the default template of "Fake blog." Fortunately, Feed Informer provides a link, "Edit HTML template Manually." Click that and you get an edit box with the source code. I removed some of the text, removed some <br /> tags and I was all set. If you tweak this code after you already implemented it on your page then you will see the changes take effect immediately. You do not have to update the code in your HTML page to see the new changes.

The only drawback is testing to see if the Digest updates when you publish new content. Feed Informer does state up front in the FAQs that they will only update your Digest if a visitor triggers it. This does make it difficult to test if you're the only one clicking on the items. However, after you put it in the wild and your visitors start using the Digests as the primary means of navigation, then it does update fairly quickly. It still won't be immediate, but will update within an hour or two. If you're like me, waiting an hour or two to see your new content appear can try your patience. But if you walk away from it and then come back a few hours later, you should be rewarded with an updated digest.

For the finishing touches on designing my home page, I did put a frame around each Digest using CSS and div tags. For more information on that, you can reference another one of my articles titled, "Creating Rounded Corners with CSS3."

For an example of an automated home page using Feed Informer, you can look at GoozerNation.com. Click through to one of the articles to see FeedBurner's BuzzBoost in action.

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