Whither Feedburner?

RSS Toast image
Is Feedburner going away? It depends on who you ask, but there sure seem to be changes afoot at the highly popular free RSS service. What is clear is that the API that serves up stats is being deprecated as of Oct. 20, 2012, and the blog and twitter streams have been shuttered. Some claim the changes are unimportant and portend nothing — I tend to disagree. These feel like the actions of a company that has decided to allow their RSS service to wither and die. Feedburner may not disappear immediately, but it certainly feels like an opportune time to be looking at alternatives.

I use RSS on this site as a way of pushing updates out to readers who use a service such as Google Reader to follow a bunch of blogs without having to check them manually. Many bloggers prefer to build email lists rather than RSS subscribers as it builds a more direct form of contact with readers. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got more than enough email to deal without adding more from every blog I have a passing interest in. I like RSS because the subscriber only sees things when they’re in a receptive mood, like when they’ve opened their reader app.

Another great use for RSS is pulling content from one site to another. I do this with my blog content to feature it on my company web page. All the uncertainty surrounding Feedburner got me curious about what would happen to Google’s BuzzBoost, the widget that can be used to bring feeds onto another web page. I’ve been using it for a while, it works great, and helps make my main page seem fresher than it would otherwise. I spent some time recently looking for alternatives for both creating the feed and sending it to another web site. I’m not an expert in any of this, but I thought I’d share what I learned.

Moving Your Feed From Feedburner

As anybody who’s done the most cursory search on this topic has no doubt discovered, a company called Feedblitz.com has been promoting themselves as a hassle-free alternative to Feedburner, and offers detailed instructions about how to transfer your feed. The catch is this — if your feed (like mine, and most people’s) uses a Feedburner URL instead of one customized to your domain, you won’t really be able to move it, in the literal sense. What you can do is set up a second feed, identical to the original one, and using features offered by both Feedburner and Feedblitz, ask your subscribers to point their RSS readers to the new URL. After 30 days, you can just delete the Feedburner feed and continue on with Feedblitz, with whatever subscribers made the effort to stay with you. Feedblitz, I should mention, is not free, though if you use it only for RSS, costs $1.49 a month, which is pretty close to free. I’m currently testing Feedblitz, and may transition to it once I’m confident that it’s working properly. I’m also investigating methods of creating my own feed from scratch – apparently it can be done.

RSS to HTML

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been using Google’s Buzzboost feature within Feedburner to send my blog RSS feed to my company web site. Looking for an alternative to Buzzboost proved to be a little trickier than setting up a new feed. It seems that there are two common ways to display an RSS feed on a web page. The first, and simplest, is to use BuzzBoost’s method — javascript. Since I know a little javascript, that seemed attractive, but it appears that by using this method, none of the RSS content will be indexed by search engines. If that’s the part of your website that changes most often, not being indexed could hurt your search ranking. So, I looked into investigating methods that can display the RSS content as pure HTML, which definitely will get indexed. After quite a bit of poking around, I settled on a free PHP script called rss2html.php. I was able to implement this fairly easily on my site, despite very limited knowledge of PHP, thanks to a good installer/tester script within the script that is quite well documented. I opted to install everything on my own server, but there are other options offered if yours does not allow you to install PHP scripts.

The one tricky bit that I encountered, that had me scratching my head for a bit, were a couple of points that were glossed over in the documentation. I’m going to explain these here, in the hope that it might help somebody else avoid similar issues. This probably exposes my extreme newbie status in messing with PHP, but I did not fully understand the entire chain of how the script is called and executed. The script itself requires two PHP files that you do not need to edit unless you are doing something exotic. There is a third provided file that is an HTML template that is used to format the output generated by the PHP script. It is within this template file that one can style the output using CSS, and can add or subtract elements of the feed to display only what is wanted.
The part that seemed counter-intuitive to me is that this template, edited as you wish, must be kept on the server, but is not itself displayed. The RSS content is displayed on another (either new or existing) web page using a PHP include, the code for which is provided by the installer script. You insert the PHP include in your HTML in the place where you want the RSS data to appear. The script formats the data according to your HTML template and inserts it in your page. Another important point — the HTML page that you have added the include to must now be renamed with a .php extension. In my case, it was my index.html page, which I renamed to index.php. The PHP code will not run without this change in file extension – I found that out the hard way.

Uncertainty

While there is much debate about the future of Feedburner, I think it’s clear that uncertainty is likely to remain for some time. I always feel better with being proactive in moving toward a situation where I can be more in control, rather than sitting back and hoping things work out the way I’d like. Perhaps this account of my experiences is helpful to somebody.

I’d be very interested to hear from others who’ve worked out better ways to take control of their RSS feeds — please add your thoughts in the comments.

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Comment (1)

  • Thanks for trying out FeedBlitz. We hope you’ll still be with us in a month!

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