What is RSS? And why you MUST own yours – TAP167


RSS makes podcasting possible. I’ll explain what RSS is and why not owning your RSS feed could mean losing all of your subscribers.


What is RSS?

In plain English, RSS is a specially formatted webpage that allows news-readers and podcast applications to subscribe for syndicated content.

Without RSS, you may be used to visiting your favorite news sites, browsing to your favorite sections, and looking over the latest items to see what’s new before deciding what to read or watch. RSS simplifies this by offering a summary of site updates. When you subscribe to an RSS feed, your software will check that one address for updated content, and display the summary or sometimes even the full content of the post (depending on the publisher’s choice).

More technical definition of RSS

“RSS” stands for “Rich Site Summary,” but it is also known as “really simple syndication,” “RDF Site Summary,” and “Real-time Simple Syndication.” RSS is a collection of XML (“extensible markup language”) standard formatting.

An RSS feed is mandatory for hosting a podcast. “Podcast” is a actually a label for a particular kind of distribution, not a style of show. Just like “radio show,” “TV,” “DVD,” and “magazine” describe the media and distribution. “Podcast” is, by technical definite, downloadable episodic multimedia (audio, video, PDF, and ePub) syndicated through RSS via the <enclosure> tag.

XML allows the creation of any kind of machine- or human-readable data. For example, I could have an <awesomeness>  tag, which I define as a numbered rating from 1 to 5. Or my XML could look like the following.

RSS will be formatted the same way, but will follow clearly defined standards. For example, here are some excerpts from my own RSS feed.

How to make an RSS feed

There are essentially three ways to make your own RSS feeds.

  1. Automatically from a content-management system (such as WordPress, Drupal,  or LibSyn)
  2. Manually with a standalone application like Feeder
  3. By hand with any text- or code-editor

If you want to live a long and happy life, I recommend letting your RSS feed be created automatically for you with intelligent software. You still have to enter the information for the feed—title, description, keywords, and each individual post—but you do it through an easy-to-learn system like WordPress.

If you have a WordPress website, then you already have more RSS feeds than you would ever need! Just add  /feed to the end of your domain and you’ll get your default site-wide RSS feed. (If you don’t have permalinks set, use /?feed=rss  instead.) Every time you publish a new post, WordPress automatically updates your RSS feed so that newsreaders and podcast apps can see the latest updates.

Content-management systems (CMS) often create several RSS feeds, such as for each category, media format, tag, or search result.

Learn more about the iTunes podcasting specifications and how to change your podcast information in iTunes.

Why you MUST own your RSS feed

There are many ways to make RSS feeds from different services, and other services to enhance your RSS feeds. But you must be careful! Your RSS feed is how your subscribers get your content. If you give them someone else’s URL that you can’t control, then you don’t truly own your audience.

Soundcloud is a big offender in this way. While they’re a great platform with cool options, the beta podcast feature often produces invalid code. But what’s even worse is that if you ever want to leave Soundcloud and you published your podcast with their RSS feed, you can’t keep your current subscribers. This problem happens with many other platforms, like Podbean, Tumblr, Blogspot, and more.

There are only three ways to keep your audience from being held hostage by these providers.

  1. Use FeedBurner or another third-party feed service. Run your feed through them and then publish your other feed. But take caution here, too! You may fall into the same problem, which leads to the next option.
  2. Implement a permanent 301 redirect. Setup a redirect so any request for your old RSS feed gets automatically forwarded to the new RSS feed. These redirects should never be removed.
  3. Add the <itunes:new-feed-url>  tag. This is  more technical but potentially more possible with some hosts. But it only works for iTunes and other apps that use the iTunes API.

Third-party, hosted platforms usually don’t offer any such freedoms. So if you want to leave, you’ll lose your audience, lose your iTunes reviews (unless you beg Apple), or you’ll have to ask your audience to unsubscribe and resubscribe (don’t do that!).

The best way to own your RSS feed is if you control the URL you publish in podcast directories. This could be some technical backend stuff going on, or that the RSS feed is hosted on your own domain with WordPress or something similar.

The only third-parties you can trust with your RSS feed are LibSyn and Blubrry. They both allow you to implement a permanent 301 redirect and the  <itunes:new-feed-url> in your feed from their service. (Use promo code “noodle” with either company for a free month!)

FeedBurner’s future is in question, but at least even they allow you to either place a permanent 301 redirect or use your own domain. If you must use a third-party, like Soundcloud or Podbean, for your podcast, then run the feed through FeedBurner and submit that URL to iTunes. Otherwise, say goodbye to your subscribers.

Why you need a podcast-only feed

If your website contains blog posts and podcast episodes, then you may be hurting your podcast growth by using your site-wide RSS feed. Use a podcast-only feed for iTunes and other podcast directories so that blog posts don’t take up the limited space in your RSS feed.

I’ve previously shared more details about how to create a podcast-only RSS feed and why you need one. In short, you can use PowerPress’s automatic feed by adding  /feed/podcast  to your domain, or use LibSyn to power your RSS feed.

What to do with your RSS feeds

If you have setup your sites well, then you should have a site-wide RSS feed (blog posts and podcast episodes) and a podcast-only feed.

  1. Submit the podcast-only feed to podcast directories, like iTunes, Stitcher, BlackBerry, Microsoft, and other mobile apps.
  2. Link to the site-wide RSS feed prominently on your site.

I suggest my Social Subscribe & Follow Icons plugin for making RSS and even podcast-only-RSS icons anywhere n your WordPress website.

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  • http://www.MoneyPlanSOS.com/about Steve MoneyPlanSOS Stewart

    What would the downside be for creating a SoundCloud account and uploading old episodes. It could help find a new audience.

    • http://DanielJLewis.net/about Daniel J. Lewis

      I totally agree with that. But Soundcloud’s free plan is limited to 2 hours (total), so you could only host one or two episodes at a time.

      Their plans are really horrible.

  • http://askacivilengineer.com/ Danny Rebelo

    Just curious if it is possible to create an RSS feed living on a WordPress site that simply copies the RSS feed created by a host like Libsyn. That would simplify things by letting the host create the RSS feed, but the podcaster can still own the feed that is being shared to the audience. This would also negate the value of using FeedBurner.

    • http://DanielJLewis.net/about Daniel J. Lewis

      LibSyn provides a service called “OnPublish” that can automatically crosspost uploaded episodes to a WordPress blog. I don’t recommend it, but it can work.

      However, what you’re describing sounds like complicating things rather than simplifying.

      Like I said, LibSyn and Blubrry are the only third-party services you can trust with your feed.

      • http://askacivilengineer.com/ Dan Rebelo, PE

        I see. I think what I am imagining is something like a WordPress plugin that copies or mirrors an RSS feed from a third-party service onto a self-hosted WordPress site. That way if the third-party goes under, the audience is still looking at the RSS feed on the self-hosted WordPress site and the podcaster can make a switch.

        Maybe this is not feasible due to the nature of RSS feeds.

        • http://DanielJLewis.net/about Daniel J. Lewis

          Stuff like that does actually exist. But you still have a single point of subscription in your feed URL.

          If you want to consider stability, the LibSyn feed is actually potentially more reliable than your own. Because on your site, all it could take is some bad code, an outdated plugin, or a hack to break your feed.

          But you still have far more control and freedom if you own the platform creating your feed.

  • http://www.russjohns.com/ Russ Johns

    Daniel, thanks for the great information and sharing your knowledge with us. I was curious what your thoughts are for platforms that are being developed to record and broadcast like Spreaker and MixLr and Audibase. I am attempting to learn more about RSS and what to get your feedback on the these new platforms.
    Enjoy the day,

    • http://DanielJLewis.net/about Daniel J. Lewis

      I love Mixlr. Spreaker is okay. But I haven’t used Audibase.

      With any of these, I recommend recording yourself instead of using their recording. Their is more compressed than your own.

  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt


    In the most recent Libsyn podcast, Rob Walch says that while WordPress (which presumably means PowerPress specifically) represents only 10% of the RSS feeds carried by iTunes, they represent the biggest single trouble ticket issue. By way of explanation, Rob says that WordPress plugins eventually break the RSS feed. That is, sooner or later, a WordPress user employs a plugin that will have compatibility issues with PowerPress, thus corrupting the RSS feed in some way. Based on this, Rob recommends using the Libsyn RSS feed, which he says is far more stable.

    What is your view of this and how does it relate to the advice you have given in the post (podcast) above?

    • http://DanielJLewis.net/about Daniel J. Lewis

      Yes, it’s true that the WordPress feed can be broken with a bad theme or bad plugin. But I disagree with LibSyn that their feed is the “best.” Using LibSyn’s feed means duplicating your efforts, or not optimizing your own platform.

      But for some people, using the LibSyn feed is actually better than trying to make their site feed work.

  • http://www.modernpreneur.com/ Craig Carpenter

    Hey Daniel! I just sent you a Facebook request but I’m not sure if it will get buried… SO, I just wanted to make sure I said thank you for this timely article! All of this RSS stuff seems to have numerous variables and pitfalls attached to it. I’m still working my way through this content but also enjoy your presentation approach. Keep up the great work!

    • http://DanielJLewis.net/about Daniel J. Lewis

      Thanks, Craig!

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