Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Using feeds: feed subscription problems? troubleshooting (2)

This post follows on from my basic introductory guide / primer on feeds, for the beginner who wants to start using news feeds aka RSS feeds.

Here I cover how to troubleshoot the all too frequent issue that arises when your feed reader or aggregator can’t seem to find a feed when you point it to a website or web page to try to subscribe to a feed.

How can I subscribe to page X on site Y when my feed reader can’t find a feed?

This is a frustrating problem for people new to using feeds (and indeed people not new to feeds!). There are workarounds to solve it.

The solution depends on the reason why trying to subscribe didn’t work when you gave your reader the website address. (If you don’t know the first thing about feeds, never fear, just read my short feeds primer.)

Here are suggested troubleshooting steps first, with reasons why later (for the curious) – if you’d like to know what autodiscovery etc means, just see the last part of this post:

  1. Try giving your feed reader another web address – not the home page of the site, but the exact web address of its news page or events page, whatever webpage it is that you’re trying to subscribe to.
  2. If that still doesn’t work, either (a) there is a feed, but there’s no autodiscovery code for the feed on the equivalent webpage (wag finger at the site owner, naughty bad, there’s really no excuse for not adding autodiscovery); or (b) there’s no feed for that page at all (slap on wrist for site owner, even badder).
  3. Let’s consider (a) first. This means you’ll have to manually look for the feed address and add it to your reader:
    1. Is there a feed icon? Go to the webpage you want to subscribe to. Hunt for a feed icon (called a chicklet) that looks like this, in varying sizes: or XML or . Rightclick the icon, save the link, and paste the linked address into your feed reader's "add" facility. It could be a text link, not an icon or image, it doesn’t matter; you just want to save that address and use it.
      1. Pitfall / trap. If that still doesn’t work, the site may have given you the wrong link. Feed icons are meant to link to the relevant feed addresses. But I’ve seen sites which link the chicklet to a webpage that lists the site’s feed addresses!
      2. So try leftclicking on the link instead, and if it goes to a webpage, you know what they’ve done. Take the feed address you want from that page – hopefully they’ve provided a feed for the page you need.
    2. No feed icons or feed links? Some sites offer feeds, but don’t bother to include feed icons on the pages that have feeds. Boo to them, spank spank! Those sites lazily have just one webpage (or more) where they list the feeds available for their site. So, go find that page. Search the website for “feed”, “newsfeed” or “RSS”. If you can find the page and it has the feed address you need, then you know what to do.
    3. No feed at all? OK, if none of that worked, the site owner probably hasn’t bothered to supply a feed for the page you want. Give them a good kick, then go read my separate post on how to “subscribe to” (track changes on) a webpage that has no feed – which is coming up in future (see, who sez I can’t do cliffhangers?)

Why can’t I subscribe to the news page on site X? Why won’t it work?

For readers who want to know why trying to subscribe to a feed sometimes doesn’t work.

  1. A feed is basically a copy of the content on the site or blog, converted into a special format suitable for feed readers. It even has its own web address (URL) – separate from the webpage’s address.
  2. Remember this: feed address, web address, not the same. Just as a site can have different webpages with different addresses, its various feeds will have different addresses too.
  3. So you can only subscribe to a feed for a webpage if the web site concerned:
    1. provides feeds in the first place (i.e. converts their webpage content into feed format – this can be done automatically on blogs, but sadly not on many basic websites), AND
    2. provides a feed for the page you want.
  4. Many sites don’t produce feeds at all; even sites that provide feeds don’t bother to create a feed for every single webpage on the site. They don’t need a feed for every web page, granted - but they certainly ought to provide feeds for all pages that contain periodically updated info which their visitors or users might be interested in knowing about. Like news or events.
  5. Also, feed readers need to be given the correct address of the feed you want to subscribe to (else they’ll cry or choke, complain and say “Oi, there’s no feed there!”). For this, they depend on:
    1. you, to manually enter the exact feed address (if you know it) when you add a feed, or
    2. (a) you, to give the reader the website’s address, and then (b) the website, to then tell the reader (behind the scenes) what the feed address is. (Remember, the web address is not the same as the feed address).
  6. How the latter works is, the reader goes to the web address you’ve given it, then checks special hidden code on that webpage to get the feed address (this is known as “feed autodiscovery” because the reader discovers the feed address automatically from being given the website address).
  7. However, as you’ve guessed, it’s up to the site owner to include this special code on the webpage. If they don’t, the po’ lil reader can’t do auto-discovery, try as it may.
  8. Also note that the code is attached to the web page, not the site as a whole - a site author might put autodiscovery code on one webpage but not another, or put different codes on different pages (as they would have different associated feeds – e.g. one feed for news, one for publications, etc). Or, of course, not put any at all..
  9. As for wrong links on feed icons - there are conventions / guidelines on using feed icons. The conventions exist for a reason. I quote, my emphasis: “The canonical use of the feed icon is on a web page containing information (such as blog posts, news articles, and so on) that is also made available via web syndication, with the icon linking to a URL for the web feed.” Sites which don’t follow the conventions make life much harder, unnecessarily, for their users – including their actual and potential customers. I have no idea why they don’t sort out their feeds and related webpages properly, it’s really not difficult. But there we go. I hope these troubleshooting tricks and tips are helpful.

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