RSS (“RDF Site Summary” or “Really Simple Syndication”) is the core to distributing your podcast. Here's why the RSS size matters, what affects the feed size, and how to reduce the size of your podcast RSS feed.
Why the size of the podcast RSS feed matters
Most podcast apps (sometimes called a “podcatchers”) or RSS clients download an entire RSS feed every time they check for new items (blog posts, podcast episodes, etc.) from that feed. (A few apps, web directories, and browsers will read special server code that essentially tells the requesting client that nothing has changed since the last check and to not redownload the feed.)
Thus, the larger your feed, the more bandwidth is required every time the app checks for new content.
Feed size matters for mobile data usage
For example, the Apple Podcasts app will automatically check feeds up to every hour. If the podcast feed is 1 MB, then that's 24 MB the app downloads per day and around 720 MB per month. And that's for only one podcast!
If a subscriber doesn't have their app set to limit refreshes or downloads when on cellular data, you could be causing unnecessary large data consumption for your subscribers.
Feed size matters for speed
Small stuff downloads quickly; big stuff downloads slowly. This is also true for podcast RSS feeds. Keeping the size down makes it download faster and thus lets your audience get your latest episodes more quickly.
Yes, this may seem trivial when you have a high-speed data network on your phone, but that may not be the case for your worldwide audience.
Self-hosted feed size matters for your server
If you host your RSS feed yourself (PowerPress, hand-coding, or another website plugin), then you must provide the bandwidth for delivering your full RSS feed to the majority of your audience.
For example, if your podcast feed is 1 MB and you have 200 subscribers, that means serving potentially 200 MB per hour or 4,800 MB (nearly 4.7 GB) per day—for only your RSS feed! That may be perfectly acceptable for your web server, but it's something to keep in mind.
Aside from the bandwidth requirements, an uncached feed on your server also means more queries required to build the dynamic RSS feed with every request. A single RSS feed could cause thousands of queries, which requires more resources from the server (RAM, CPU, and disk activity). Multiply these requests by how many other subscribers are making the same requests simultaneously, and you can imagine how easily a server can crash from exceeding its resources.
Some tools limit the size of your RSS feed
FeedBurner and some other tools have explicit limits to the size of feeds they support. Currently, FeedBurner's limit for the source feed is 1 MB (up from 512 KB not long ago). If you use FeedBurner or other limited tools and your feed gets too big, your podcast might stop updating.
What affects the feed size
The size of the RSS feed is based on how many characters are included in the feed itself. For example, “Los Angeles” requires more space than “LA” and long paragraphs require more space than a short sentence.
Also, RSS is made up of separate XML (“Extensible Markup Language”) tags, such as
<itunes:images>, and such.
The size of images, videos, audio, and other linked assets don't matter, because the code in an RSS feed is only linking to those assets, not embedding them.
All of these pieces of data combine to make the RSS feed and each piece affects the overall size. Thus, the more an RSS feed holds, the larger it will be.
RSS feeds can be compressed with GZIP through a caching plugin or intelligent RSS tool. But the core idea of shrinking an RSS feed is in reducing the amount of data it contains.
5 ways to reduce the size of your RSS feed
The following features may be limited based on the podcast-feed-creation tool you're using.
1. Enable GZIP compression
If you use a third-party tool, such as Libsyn, to create your RSS feed, they probably already compress the feed to reduce its size.
If you're self-hosting your RSS feed, then set up a caching plugin for better performance and ensure it caches and compresses the feeds, too (and that it's compatible with PowerPress).
2. Use a podcast-only RSS feed
If you blog on your WordPress website (which I do highly recommend) and use your site's default RSS feed (/feed), then blog posts and podcast episodes are being combined. That's fine for a the primary feed, but that's not what you should use for your podcast.
When your feed contains both blog posts and podcast episodes, two things happen.
- Podcast apps or directories will usually read only the podcast episodes and skip the blog posts. Thus, you're wasting space in your podcast feed by including the blog posts.
- Blog posts will bump out podcast episodes when you reach your feed item limit. For example, If you have 50 episodes and 50 separate blog posts with a feed limit of 50, you might see only 25 episodes in your podcast app.
For WordPress, the best way to get a podcast-only feed is to use PowerPress's default podcast channel feed (/feed/podcast). Using a category's RSS feed (/category-name/feed) can work, too, but it has never been the best idea (except in very rare cases). The PowerPress default channel feed will always contain only podcast episodes entered into the “Podcast Episode” widget of a post.
If you can't or don't want to use a PowerPress feed, consider using the RSS feed from your media host. The only hosts I currently trust for this are Libsyn and Blubrry. If you're using any other host, I suggest running the feed through FeedBurner (with all stats and features disabled).
3. Activate PowerPress's “Feed Episode Maximizer”
If you use PowerPress to create your podcast's RSS feed, activate the Feed Episode Maximizer feature. This will reduce how much information is attached to episodes past your latest 10, and thus significantly reduce the size of your RSS feed.
Through PowerPress 6.3, Feed Episode Maximizer is available only on channel and post-type feeds. But later versions of PowerPress offer the feature on category and taxonomy feeds.
4. Switch the feed from full content to summaries
Remember that every character in your RSS feed takes up extra space. So instead of publishing thorough show notes or a complete transcript in your RSS feed, consider reducing that to summaries.
If you use WordPress, go to Settings > Reading to switch “For each article in a feed, show” from “Full text” to “summary.” This will use the first 55 words of your blog post—or the full excerpt, if you enable and write that for each post—instead of the entire post.
The more text you write for your podcast, the more this will help. But it's also mostly irrelevant if you use PowerPress's Feed Episode Maximizer, since this will include the full text (if that's WordPress's setting on your site) only for the latest 10 episodes.
5. Simplify formatting
Rich-text-formatting (bold, italics, colors, size, hyperlinks, and more) may not appear to change the number of characters you see, but it adds HTML code to make those changes.
For example, compare these two pieces of text:
- The Audacity to Podcast
- The Audacity to Podcast
The code behind them looks like this:
The Audacity to Podcast
<span style="color: #003300;"><em><a style="color: #003300;" href="https://theaudacitytopodcast.com/">The Audacity to Podcast</a></em></span>
This doesn't mean you should avoid rich text formatting, but I do recommend keeping things clean. Avoid changing colors because this adds extra code and it could make your text unreadable in some apps. Paste as plain text with Cmd-Shift-V (MacOS) or Ctrl-Shift-V (Windows, Linux), or use WordPress's “Paste as Text” toggle (buried in the “more options” toolbar of the post editor) if you're pasting from other programs and it will clean up the hidden code that is often included.
6. Reduce the post/episode limit
Lastly is the most obvious, but my least recommended option. You could set a smaller limit to how many episodes your podcast RSS feed contains.
This will probably have the greatest impact on the size of your feed, because the individual items account for most of the data in your feed. For example, in a feed with 100 items, each episode will account for an average of 1% of the feed size. Thus, reducing the number of episodes by 50% will probably reduce your feed size by the same 50%.
However, I recommend this as your last choice, especially for timeless podcasts. Apple's podcast apps limit directory listings to the latest 300 episodes of a podcast. All those episodes contribute to the podcast's findability or search-engine optimization (SEO). Once subscribed, someone can access your archive beyond the latest 300 episodes, for as far back as your RSS feed goes.
Thus, adjusting the limit for your RSS feed has more of a personal impact than merely changing the size of your feed. It's ultimately your decision, but here's what I recommend you consider.
- For timeless content—that is, stuff that people will still want years from now—I recommend setting the limit to 300. If you have more episodes than that, consider publishing Archive feeds in iTunes for your first 100–300 at a time, as John Lee Dumas does with Entrepreneur on Fire. Thus, each episode is still easily findable and consumable in iTunes.
- For current-events content—that is, time-based stuff that won't matter much or at all years from now—I recommend a smaller limit, such as 50 for a weekly podcast (and thus the last year's worth of episodes). I wouldn't count TV-show-fan podcasts in this, because people might watch the TV shows years after they aired.
- For podcasts that sell the back catalog, I recommend 3–10 episodes. That seems enough to get someone hooked and eager for more, while not giving them access to everything. But remember that fewer episodes means less SEO for your podcast.
If you use a PowerPress feed, you can adjust this episode limit in the PowerPress feed settings. If you use the default WordPress feed (which I don't recommend), adjust the limit in Settings > Reading. If you use a third-party tool to create your RSS feed, then look inside their settings (in Libsyn, Destinations > Libsyn Classic Feed > Advanced Options > Episode/Post Limit).
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