RSS has positioned itself as an unlikely (often unsung) hero in work optimization and efficiency through the syndication of content from various sources. Not only do the current-generation feed readers redirect posts from different media (Twitter profiles, newsletters, YouTube channels and comment sections), they also incorporate sharing options and connectivity with other applications to deliver the best possible service.
These additional functionalities have elevated RSS feed readers from a passive tool for keeping up with the latest information to an active tool to discover new sources, automate content and then further distribute it to new channels. As such, website owners should consider adding RSS feeds to engage with this portion of their readership they might not have necessarily otherwise retained.
Generating an RSS feed is simple enough. After all, the protocol has existed since 1999 and users don’t need to jump through hoops to get started. You choose an RSS feed reader out of the many options available (either free or paid), then subscribe to RSS feeds of your favorite sites and you’re done. All new updates arrive in your reader as soon as they’re posted.
That’s what RSS advertises. It’s what it delivers, but we have to make a side note. With advances made, additions of new elements in the code and expectations for RSS feeds to integrate with other applications, the probability something can go wrong rises steadily.
This leads us to RSS feed validation and its role in delivering on those performance expectations.
So let’s dig right in, find out what the validation process looks like and what tools get the job done at the end of the day!
As with any coding language, XML requires precision or else your RSS feed won’t perform at its full capacity. Either it becomes invisible to RSS feed readers or the XML file causes errors within the application’s feed – posts don’t show up or read posts become marked as unread. Validation is a safety precaution against unnecessary stress later on. Just as there are validators for HTML, CSS and accessibility guidelines, there are tools meant to make your life easier in dealing with RSS.
But first let’s examine what the XML file should do! To successfully syndicate content from one website to a feed reader, the feed reader has to crawl through the XML file to parse for new posts. Both the channel (the RSS feed as a whole) and the item (the individual post) should all have the same core elements – title, description, link – that are legible to RSS readers. In addition, there are a lot of non-mandatory channel elements, which further complicate the overall structure.
Each CMS like WordPress, Joomla and Drupal have their own ways of generating RSS feeds that have some slight differences to consider. Overall, RSS feed validation performs two functions – it irons out any errors and ensures compatibility with other applications that communicate with the RSS reader.
Just because RSS is coded in the relatively simple XML language doesn’t necessarily exclude the probability of certain errors in its code. Faulty code confuses how RSS readers read the RSS feed, so the need for a feed to follow a specific protocol goes beyond simply having an RSS feed’s URL somewhere in the source code for your website. Automated validation functions as a troubleshoot mechanism before any actual problems surface for feed readers and then users.
Among the most common issues plaguing RSS formatting is the date format. Although there are a high number of date formats available, RSS recognizes one standardized format – Sun, 11 Oct 2020 12:12:06 GMT – referred to as the RFC822 format. Depending on the specific programming language in use, there’s a different command. For Ruby, the code looks like DateTime.now.rfc822 and you have to seek out the right output for your language of choice.
Similarly, a change to the time zone would move the timestamp either forwards or backwards and the results of that change could very well trigger RSS feed readers into flagging all current posts as brand new. Errors such as these reduce overall satisfaction on the end consumers’ end and are likely to lead to higher unsubscription rates.
Another oversight worth your attention is the inclusion of a
<guid> element, which is a globally unique identifier with an emphasis on ‘unique’. You want to have a
<guid> element in your post as that helps RSS readers identify a new post as such, when it next returns to crawl the feed. With a
<guid> element in place, errors such as the one above with the timestamps naturally won’t be a possibility.
Used on its own, RSS is a powerful tool for consolidating information streams and increasing your productivity on a day-to-day basis. However, the full potential of RSS becomes evident when it’s applied within the context of compatibility with other applications. On the site-owner end, this puts extra pressure on guaranteeing the functionality of the RSS feed. And so we circle back to the importance of RSS feed validation.
RSS feeds are often in communication with other applications and news aggregator sites such as Google News, Pocket, OneNote and MailChimp. Compatibility with third-party applications lies on the ability for these services to correctly read RSS feeds and without the proper formatting this becomes impossible. The stakes become even higher for content that’s not accessible otherwise like podcast episodes as listeners use apps like Spotify, iTunes and Stitcher to receive content – exclusively we want to underline. To that end, RSS compatibility should be the first priority!
We touch a little bit on how you are able to validate a podcast’s RSS feed alongside compatibility with Apple iTunes.
RSS feeds appear to be a rather uncomplicated piece of coding. One might say deceptively so and they’d be correct! The reality is that more things can go wrong in the generation of an RSS feed than one suspects or expects. Doubly so when you’re the one who’s written the code in the first place, we might add. RSS validation then should be a necessary step upon the creation of an RSS feed. Even WordPress can make errors with their RSS feeds, though fixing them remains relatively easy.
RSS has grown and changed significantly since its introduction in 1999, where the most important elements for the RSS feed’s XML code were URL, title and description on a channel level and on a post level. Once it skyrocketed to popularity, RSS grew to include additional elements that are not required by developers, which resulted in the change in RSS 2.0 that fully enables unrestricted addition of non-mandatory elements as long as those elements are defined in a namespace.
A cursory glance at the variety of elements to get right can be a little bit overwhelming. If you balk at the idea of manual RSS validation, you’re not the only one. More than one coder has developed their own RSS validation tools for that exact purpose – the Feed Validator by the RSS Advisory Board, Cast Feed Validator for podcasts and the aptly named feedvalidator.org. All are free to use and easy to navigate, but we want to focus on two first-rate feed validators with a stellar reputation:
No matter what RSS feed you want to validate, the Feed Validation Service released by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) costs you nothing and gets straight to the point. Developed by Mark Pilgrim and Sam Ruby, this feed validator can run locally as it’s an open-source project and works with RSS 0.90, 0.91, 0.92, 0.93, 0.94, 1.0, and 2.0. Alongside RSS, you can also use the tool just as easily for Atom feeds as the tool supports the IETF standard Atom format.
The Feed Validation Service is a no-fuss, cut-to-the-chase tool. You copy your feed URL into the validation field, click Check and you’re done. There’s also the option to validate a feed by direct input of the code. Either way, it’s not a complicated process and usability also extends to how the error messages function.
The tool highlights errors in your code and returns messages for errors with actionable tips on how to fix them. Hit a wall with understanding a specific error message? Each message offers a further help link that directs you to an in-depth tutorial. Another strength of the Feed Validation Service is its catalogue of error messages and explanations – highly useful for coders who want to master the XML language. It’s this step-by-step approach and thoroughness, which elevates this service in a league of its own and positions it as the industry standard for RSS feed validation.
Aside from validating RSS feeds in compliance with RSS 2.0 specification, the Feed Validation Service also looks into elements of commonly used namespaces:
Podcasts are their own beast to syndicate, because in addition to proper XML protocol creators have to contend with additional elements and compatibility concerns to address at the SEO level. Developed by Charles Wiltgen, Podbase handles RSS feed validation for podcasts and assesses compatibility with iTunes. Given the domination of iTunes in the English-speaking world, earning proper compatibility cements a podcast’s longevity and growth.
As with the Feed Validation Service, Podbase requires only a single step – copy and paste the feed of your podcast and hit validate. The tool runs a thorough check against several criteria and results should return in seconds, but the entire validation process might take more time (that should be a red flag that something might not be right with your feed) as the validation process goes through three rungs of checklists:
XML: Podbase runs through the standard RSS feed validation steps. Is there an RSS feed ready to be retrieved? Is it formed well by XML standards? Afterwards, Podbase validates the feed against RSS 2.0 specification to determine the quality of code. Last but most important for a podcast, is the SSL certificate compatible with iTunes?
SEO: Podbase goes through a short checklist for good SEO that determines whether the URL for the feed is a good URL.
Apple iTunes: Last, the tool moves through the specific requirements for iTunes compatibility and it’s at this stage that Podbase takes its time. The service goes through cover art requirements, the support HTTP HEAD requests, support for byte-range requests, iTunes category and summary and also the elements necessary for the podcast feed to be searched properly (
<description> tags at the
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