In the blogging community, the debate over the use of full or partial RSS feeds seems to rage on with no sign of abating. Elsewhere, the decision seems much more straightforward.
So what is all the fuss about? Well, it’s all about the description field in the RSS feed and whether it should just contain a summary of the article being linked to, or the complete article in its entirety.
A Short History Lesson
RSS feeds date back to March 1999, when the first RSS feed (RDF Site Summary) was created by Netscape. While RSS now stands for Really Simple Syndication, and there have been some technical changes to the nuts and bolts of it’s operation, it still bears most of the features of the original version.
The original Netscape specification (RSS 0.9) required that the complete RSS file should be 8 kB or less and each item should have a title and link to the relevant website content, but no description of the content was catered for. The description field was added in the RSS 0.91 specification by Netscape in July 1999.
In June 2000, an alternative RSS 0.91 specification was published by UserLand Software that defined the description field (the story synopsis) as being a maximum of 500 characters in length.
We can see from the history of RSS feeds that they were conceived to be relatively condensed files, alerting the user to the existence of new articles on chosen websites, with a brief synopsis or summary of the selected article being provided as a teaser to the main article.
So, if you want to follow the original spirit of RSS, this is the way to go, merely providing a short summary of what your article is about and letting the user decide, if they are sufficiently inspired, to click on a single link and read the full article.
A major proponent of this type of partial feed is the BBC, with their news website. One such feed on their website, by way of example, is the BBC News – Technology – RSS Feed.
While RSS feeds were never intended to contain the entire content of a web article, since the release of the RSS 0.92 specification in December 2000, all of the newer RSS specifications allow for the description field to be of unlimited length. This has opened up RSS feeds to the possibility of not just containing short descriptions of the articles being linked to, but the entire articles.
While RSS was never intended to be used in this way, clearly things evolve as people develop new ways of using existing technologies, constantly pushing the boundaries, which is definitely a good thing.
The blogging community was the major instigator of using RSS feeds in this fashion, although opinion is still divided with the community over which feed type is best.
Which is Your Flavour?
At the end of the day, it really comes down to personal preference which feed type you prefer. Unfortunately however, it’s down to the personal preference of the feed publisher, and not you as a user, which feed type you receive: you get what you’re given!
So, until web-masters, or content management systems like WordPress, or systems like FeedBurner make it easy to subscribe to your chosen feed in either full fat or semi skimmed options, your personal choice as a user is somewhat irrelevant, you are at the mercy of the feed publisher’s personal choice.
As a purist, semi skimmed feeds are the way it’s meant to be, with feeds just containing brief summaries of articles to be found on the web. If a user likes the sound of an article, then they’re only one click away from it. These feeds also download much quicker, put less strain on servers and on the internet backbone as a whole.
However, if you like to read all of your subscribed feeds from within your chosen RSS client, without having to hop backwards and forwards to different websites to read articles, then the full fat option is definitely more your flavour. Reading full articles from within your RSS client will also be quicker, as once downloaded you don’t have to wait for the article’s web page to load. If you like the look of an article, just scroll down and carry on reading.
So how do you take yours, full fat or semi-skimmed?
Well, I now know something I didn’t know before. I think my preference is for the feed to show you a one-liner that links to the full story. I suppose some RSS feeds are just used to let you know that something new has happened and you ought to look at it, rather than providing you with the actual new info. Horses for courses.
Can I put in a request for the next feature? Tell me all about PHP & SQL, etc. and what use they would be for me.
Simon: Glad you liked the article, likewise I think I prefer the partial RSS feeds at the moment, but I reserve the right to change my mind.
I’ll add the PHP and SQL ideas to my list for future articles.
Hello Richard, nice article. I think it really depends on many things but we generally recommend to go full RSS for the user experience and figure out a better way to monetize the content.
Disclosure: I’m community manager at http://www.feedsapi.org and we turn shortened RSS into full text RSS feeds.
Richard Farrar commented
Hi Kerstin, Thanks for your response. Full RSS is my preferred option too now (it didn’t used to be though) as I definitely prefer consuming feeds that way from a usability point of view, but as you say it requires other ways to monetize your site if that’s your primary aim.
Out of curiosity, have you seen a decline in the use of RSS over the last few years?