How to Shrink Your Podcast RSS Feed and Why It Matters – TAP269

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.

Read more about why your may want to host your own RSS feed and why you may not.

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 <description>, <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.

If you use a different tool for creating your podcast RSS feed, such as Libsyn’s or Blubrry’s media-hosting feed, then how much content you include is your decision, not a switch in the software.

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 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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As an award-winning podcaster, Daniel J. Lewis gives you the guts and teaches you the tools to launch and improve your own podcasts for sharing your passions and finding success. Daniel creates resources for podcasters, such as the SEO for Podcasters and Zoom H6 for Podcasters courses, the Social Subscribe & Follow Icons plugin for WordPress, the My Podcast Reviews global-review aggregator, and the Podcasters' Society membership for podcasters. As a recognized authority and influencer in the podcasting industry, Daniel speaks on podcasting and hosts his own podcast about how to podcast. Daniel's other podcasts, a clean-comedy podcast, and the #1 unofficial podcast for ABC's hit drama Once Upon a Time, have also been nominated for multiple awards. Daniel and his wife, Jenny, live near Cincinnati with their son, "Noodle Boy."

16 comments on How to Shrink Your Podcast RSS Feed and Why It Matters – TAP269

  1. Hey Daniel, great detailed info… thanks!

    I’d love to hear a bit more about your *current* opinion on the ‘to host’ or ‘not to host’ for the RSS feed though. (It seems like there’s a mini-show-down brewing between a couple of the big podcast hosts on the topic.)

    I can see how certain situations would make the decision more clear. For example, if one was on relatively cheap/slow shared hosting, it might be a wise choice to let someone else host the feed, especially in light of the size considerations and load on the server. And, it’s harder to do good testing, or quickly roll-back if something goes wrong, etc. Since I’m on WP Engine, none of these things are too much of a worry… so my feed would probably be every bit as stable, if not more, than a 3rd party… with the advantage that I have more control.

    But, since I’m ultimately paying for traffic, I suppose it might be smarter to let the podcast hosting pay for that instead. And, there’s starting to be talk about separate RSS feeds for iTunes, Google, etc. I’m sure if that’s needed, PowerPress will come up with a solution, but maybe that’s better to let a 3rd party deal with too?

    I thought I had it all worked out… PowerPress and my own RSS feed. But, lately, I’ve begun to question that more. I guess I’m wondering if that’s more a case of marketing or making a wise choice.

    1. Thanks, Steve!

      My two blog posts (linked in the show notes) do cover my thoughts. But I do think this would be good for an episode, and to even include FeedBurner in that discussion.

      1. Yes, I read those, but was thinking about an update, especially considering any impact of Google Play Music, or the statements of various podcast hosting companies, and yes, even FeedBurner (as I’ve heard Cliff note a few benefits recently) and that kind of stuff. It would make great episode (though probably a bit of a contentious one). 🙂

    2. geeknews says:

      PowerPress has had the ability to create multiple feeds for free since nearly the beginning with podcast channels. Most podcasters use channels when they create multiple pieces of media for a single episode.

      We have 60,000 Podcaters using there own feeds with a variety of hosting solutions with “no” issues. One client afterbuzztv has over 500 feeds with no feedburner usage, being served from a traditional dedicated server with over 100 million hits a week on the feed, while extreme it is all being run under one WP install.

      The scare tactics used by service providers is just that scare tactics. We may deal with one slow loading feed issue a month, but it is typically from a plugin with bad code costing performance issues.

      The fact is more than half of active podcasters use their own feed no mater what anyone says.

      1. Hey Todd, that’s been my (limited) experience so far, even though I only manage one feed for a client. I guess my hesitation is more in terms of additional directories, like Google Play Music, and the possible need for specialized feeds for each directory (but yea, no reason PowerPress couldn’t do that). Do I want to take that one, or just let someone else deal with it… which has +/- to consider. 🙂

        And… in light of this discussion about the size of the RSS feed and impacts on performance/amount of data, etc. whether off-loading that might be a good idea. (Not necessarily in terms of what’s possible, but more in terms of who’s paying for the server resources/data xfer.)

        1. There are two schools of thought for separate feeds for one show.

          1. Single feed to all destinations: That’s the PowerPress approach and it works perfectly fine. Yes, GPM has their own tags and you can adjust those with PowerPress.
          2. Separate feeds for different destinations: This is the Libsyn approach and it gives more flexibility—which you may never need. Yes, this makes it much easier to publish an episode to one destination and not another, but I see so few practical reasons to consider this that it’s almost a moot point. However, this could become extremely useful if you have sponsorship or advertising agreements that aren’t allowed on certain platforms. Then, you could host separate episodes for the separate platforms. For example, what if Google decides your sponsor violates GPM’s terms?

          I try to understand all sides on issues. On this issue, I think it’s far simpler to concern yourself with only a single podcast feed.

          1. geeknews says:

            As we have already experienced when their is a RSS feed for every destination like Libsyn is doing today it is chaos when a podcaster decides to take back control of their feed.

            With Libsyn only forwarding rss feeds for a very short time aka end of the month on an account cancellation then it can cause absolute havoc!

          2. Will (or does?) PowerPress support the ability to create a Google Play Music and/or iTunes feed independently (not multiple feeds for multiple podcasts or media types)? If so, then I think the discussion comes back to the original self-host vs outsourcing that Daniel’s current articles address well. And *I* favor self-hosting as I’ve got robust hosting and easy testing/rollback capability.

            The whole feed problems thing (that Libsyn talks about) simply isn’t an issue for me (though I can see it might be for others… I’ve had a plugin update take down a site or site features *MANY* times. It probably happens about once per month on average across my client’s/my sites. It’s just that I can have the site rolled back in about a minute. Or usually catch the problem on the staging server, before it even gets that far.)

          3. geeknews says:

            Like I said earlier it has always been possible to create a unique feed in PowerPress we do not know of anyone using it that way. You could link the same media file to each feed.

            The problem with multiple feeds is in ongoing management and then dealing with long term re-directs if you ever move. Like I said Libsyn does not do a permanent redirect its up until the account cancels.

          4. Well, Libsyn does offer a permanent redirect on all RSS feeds from a close account, but it’s a one-time $25 charge on account termination to place those redirects.

          5. Sure, you could have multiple channel feeds where you enter platform-specific data in each. But I really don’t think that would be necessary for most podcasters.

          6. re: #1 – I suppose in terms of feed size, though, if we start adding too many directory-specific tags, breaking them out would reduce the size of each, or allow more specificity (i.e. a different ‘description’ for separate directories).

            re: #2 – That makes sense, lots more flexibility. That said, it seems like that would be quite simple for PowerPress to implement if the need becomes great. (Or, do they already?)

            So, in the end, I guess it comes down more to control and stability. THAT would push me more towards hosting my own feed. But, that’s me… I can see where others would want to outsource that.

          7. #1: the impact of extra directory data in a feed is smaller than an additional episode, so that’s not much of a concern. PowerPress already supports the GPM-specific tags, in case you want to write something different for GPM. But I can only see iOS or Android podcasts benefiting from that. However, GPM currently does index the podcast description while iTunes doesn’t. That might be something to consider, but a good description will work for either platform.

            #2: sure, you could create multiple channel feeds from PowerPress, but it goes back to the core issue: is it even necessary? I think it’s not, for 99% of podcasters.

          8. Thanks, but I guess my point was that if we’re trying to reduce the size of our feeds by getting rid of extra text, adding multiple tags for each new service does seem to counteract that. I suppose it ultimately isn’t a huge deal unless more and more directories keep popping up with their own tags. But, considering this was the theme of this episode, I thought I’d point it out. 🙂

            re: #2, I agree probably not necessary, unless the things you mentioned like advertising and such. But, if I’m understanding correctly, at Libsyn, it would be done for you, where with PowerPress you’d have to kind of make it work, unless they add that specifically as an option. (i.e.: possible, but not as elegant)

            Also, Rob keeps saying (he’s said it on the last several The Feed podcasts) that we’re going to want separate feeds… I’m not sure if he knows something I don’t, or if that’s marketing.

  2. Great info. Had worked on this when my feed got so large all my episodes weren’t coming through and was still able to find some things I hadn’t done. Wasn’t aware of the Feed Maximizer. That’s a great feature!

  3. Rob @ podcast411 says:

    Or if you host with libsyn leave all your episodes on the feed and use the libsyn feed – then none of the issue above mater.

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