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Your blog should have an RSS feed

To kick off this year, I wrote a blog post about why you should have your own blog. Today I'm writing about the next step: making sure you have an RSS feed so people can subscribe to your blog. I'll first talk about what is an RSS feed, then why you'd want to have one and finally a bit about how to have one.

What's an RSS feed?

RSS feed is a standardized way of providing a way to subscribe to content in the Internet. It's an extension of XML and it used to be more popular before the emergence of social media as a way to keep following interesting content provided by websites or bulletins.

You can find mine in https://hamatti.org/feed/feed.xml and as an example, it looks something like this:

<feed xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom">
	<title>Juha-Matti Santala | Community Builder. Adventurer. Dreamer.</title>
	<subtitle/>
	<link href="" rel="self"/>
	<link href="https://hamatti.org/"/>
	<updated>2021-07-20T21:00:00+03:00</updated>
	<id/>
	<author>
		<name>Juha-Matti Santala</name>
		<email>juhamattisantala@gmail.com</email>
    </author>
	<entry>
		<title>Javascript Basics: Scope</title>
		<link href="https://hamatti.org/posts/javascript-basics-scope/"/>
		<updated>2021-07-20T21:00:00+03:00</updated>
		<id>https://hamatti.org/posts/javascript-basics-scope/</id>
		<content type="html"> -- redacted for brevity --</content>
	</entry>
</feed>

Every time my blog is updated, so is my feed.xml file and anyone subscribing to my feed will get an update that there's new content from me. In my opinion, it's probably the best way to follow content (more on that later).

Many blogs are written and published in some sort of publishing or content management system (like Ghost or Wordpress) or built with site generators (like Eleventy or Gatsby). These tools offer automated ways to generate your RSS feed so you don't have to manually type the XML each time.

Why an RSS feed is so important?

These days, we (as readers) find a lot of the content in social media. Social media can be a good tool to find new content and new writers but social media platforms are run by algorithms that take the control of what content you see away from you and they show the content they think is most addictive so you'll spend more time on the platform.

This means that even following your favorite writers in Twitter or LinkedIn doesn't mean that you'd always see what they publish.

However, subscribing to an RSS feed using an RSS reader (like Feedly) or Slack's built-in /feed functionality (I use this to keep track of when my colleagues publish new posts as I get a ping in my work Slack) means that you'll be in the driving seat. You choose which content you subscribe to and you'll only see that content.

From author's point of view, it also means you can cut through all the noise, circumvent the algorithm's arbitrariness and provide a nice way for your readers to read your blog posts.

I follow a lot of developers and community builders on Twitter and I've networked with quite a few on LinkedIn as well. I see a lot of interesting blog posts there and find things to read. But when I find something I like, I rather subscribe to their RSS to make sure I don't miss any of the new posts.

I've been collecting software developer's websites in a bookmark folder for quite a while. Mostly blogs but also portfolio style sites: there's always some new inspiration to find from those when improving my own site. The other day, I wanted to add all of those to my new RSS reader as I got an iPad.

Out of the 60 blogs on my bookmark folder, only 32 had RSS feed. And around 6 or 7 of those didn't mention that anywhere on the website, I had to dig it from the source (these were probably added automatically by their blogging tool). With 60 (and counting) blogs, there's no way I'd check them out manually with any kind of regularity.

So when I sit in the tram while commuting (yeah, it's still a thing) or when I travel somewhere and I open my iPad, only roughly a half of these blogs end up on my reading list. I do use Pocket as a secondary way of keeping track of things to read when there are things I don't want to subscribe to but that means that if your blog doesn't have an RSS feed, I'm probably not returning to see what new things you've written.

The great thing about having an RSS feed is that you own your content delivery. Not Twitter, not LinkedIn, not [insert-your-favorite-platform]. If you build your readership through RSS, you're not relying on a whim of a middleman.

You can also decide how much you want to share through RSS: many decide to share the entire article so it can be read completely through the reader while others only provide an excerpt and have you actually go to their blog to read it in full.

For me, a small win is also that I don't know how many people have subscribed to my RSS feed. I don't have to obsess over likes or analytics, but rather distance myself from that popularity contest and focus on providing interesting thing for people to read.

How to add and RSS feed to your blog?

There are two steps to adding an RSS feed: creating the feed and updating it when new posts are written, and making that feed accessible to readers.

Creating the feed

You can create your feed manually if you wish but it's probably not a sustainable way – before or later you'll forget to update it or grow tired of doing it manually.

Here are links to documentation on some platforms and tools. If your tool isn't mentioned, try googling "[your tool] RSS" and see if documentation can be found.

Adding your feed to the website

I highly recommend having a link somewhere on your site that indicates to the reader that there is an RSS feed. As I mentioned previously during my experiment, roughly 20% of the blogs that had a feed, didn't mention it visibly on the website.

In my website's case, I'd add a link like this one:

<a href="/feed/feed.xml">RSS</a>

Many (like my site too) also use the RSS icon to indicate a link to the feed.

There's also another way to expose your RSS feed to the readers: auto-discovery. It means that in the <head> of your website, you tell RSS readers where to find your feed. In my case, it looks like this:

<link
  rel="alternate"
  type="application/rss+xml"
  title="hamatti.org &raquo; Feed"
  href="https://hamatti.org/feed/feed.xml"
/>

For your own use, replace title and href attribute with your website's info.

With the auto-discovery link, your users can just use your top level URL to add it to their RSS reader and they don't have to go hunting for the direct link.