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Architectures of Control: How Design Influences the Ways We Use and Do Things

Have You RSS-Enabled Your Site? And If You Have, Can Readers Find Your Feeds?

Rss_2 While I think that many people are starting to get the idea of subscribing to RSS feeds to update themselves on the latest news and information in their field, I realized the other day that a lot of nonprofits haven't mastered the other side of the RSS equation--enabling RSS in their own sites so that others can sign up for automatic updates.  A few recent examples from my own work:

  • I'm developing a web site for one of my clients. They regularly receive email updates from a state  agency and wanted to share these updates on their site. I suggested that we might be able to capture the government agency's RSS feed so that this information could automatically be updated on my client's site without my client having to upload or manually enter the information. However, as it turns out, not a single section of the state agency's site is RSS-enabled--not even the "What's New" section or the sections that are regularly updated with statistical data. The only way for me to get information is to visit their site.
  • I'd like to develop a Netvibes page for the sector in which I work that could be shared with management and front-line staff. Unfortunately, the professional organizations, government agencies and most of the nonprofits in this sector have not enabled RSS on their sites, so there's little to put into the start page.

At first I thought this was just my own sector, so I started doing some Google searches on "nonprofit" to see a cross section of sites. Guess what? A significant number of them didn't have RSS either.

I expected this with smaller organizations, but was surprised to see it with larger nonprofits like this regional chapter of the Red Cross, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and even a pretty sophisticated site, like the American Lung Association. Although with the American Lung Association you can at least sign up for email updates.

I haven't figured out why this is going on. Part of this is ignorance, I'm sure--although it's a little scary to think that some of these larger organizations and state agencies don't know about RSS yet.

Even scarier is the possibility that these organizations know about RSS, but have chosen to not enable their sites. This is a shame, not only because this means organizations are losing out on creating an ongoing relationship with visitors to their sites by providing relevant, regularly updated content delivered directly to readers, but also because using RSS will increase a site's ranking in search engines.

In some cases, I can understand why RSS hasn't been enabled. If you run a site that's brochure-ware and, therefore, rarely updated, then RSS becomes less important. But this is a problem in and of itself because organizations that don't regularly add new content to their sites are in danger of being ignored altogether. If you're not regularly providing useful information online, then that's something you should seriously re-evaluate.

Another thing I observed--even those sites that had RSS didn't make it easy to sign up. A couple of examples of what I mean.

First, the Pew Charitable Trust site:


As you can see, you can sign up for an email alert, but there's nothing to suggest RSS--unless you click on the link to the News Room. From there, you can then link to their RSS feeds. That's burying the feeds pretty deeply in the site, making it hard for someone to find them. 

Another confusing site, to a newbie at least, was the American Cancer Society. Note the little XML button at the bottom of the "In the News" section. The problem is that a lot of people have no idea what that little orange XML means.


Ironically, when you click on the button at the Cancer Society site, you're actually taken to a nicely done page that explains RSS, how to sign up for a reader, etc. It's just that you won't learn about RSS unless you click on the button and if you don't know about RSS, you're not likely to click on the button in the first place.

Some RSS Best Practices

This exercise made me realize that we should be identifying some best practices in using RSS. A couple that spring to mind:

  • Make RSS appropriate for your site by regularly updating content. At a minimum, try to have a "What's New" section of your site. Ideally, you would make several sections of your site more useful to people by providing updated content, including an organizational blog.
  • RSS-enable your site. If you're using blogging software, this is usually done automatically. But if you're having a web developer work on your site, then you will need to speak to them about enabling RSS. Also consider allowing people to receive updates via email if you're not already doing this.
  • Prominently feature a link to your RSS feed and your RSS Guide on the Home page of your site. Make it very visible and make it understandable for newbies--something like "Sign up for automatic updates" or "Get notified every time we update our site."

So here are the big questions for the day

  • Is your organization's web site RSS-enabled?
  • If if isn't, why haven't you set this up?
  • If it is, how easy is it for visitors to find and sign up for your feed(s)?


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Over here in the UK, it is a pretty similar story. Where I work managing a non-profit organisation that supports others (when not freelancing as a a web dev on my days off!), I've tried to be a good example to others with regards to incorporating RSS and hopefully our users will catch on eventually. Saying that though, we do have a reasonable number of readers according to my feedburner stats; whether they are local orgs, funders or other orgs elsewhere being curious - that I do not know.

Until more charities/non-profits start using their sites more proactively to deliver timely news and updates, I think the take up of RSS followers/readers for non-profits is going to remain small for the near future.
Example of my works site here:

Thanks for the good tips - will incorporate them!

I agree with you 100% Laura that a big part of the issue is about whether or not organizations are using their sites to provide timely news and information. One of the things I've observed with my clients is that they see their websites as primarily online advertisements for their organizations, rather than as vehicles for providing services or engaging in conversations with their own customers. There's not much point to RSS on your site if your primary goal is to provide basic information about your organization and a place for online donations. There probably needs to be a fundamental shift in how organizations think about their websites before enabling RSS makes total sense.

That said, I think your site is great--clean layout and I like what you've done in featuring and describing RSS. Thanks for sharing!

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