RSS and Atom feeds, as well as other types of content syndication feeds, are mainly driven by text. Search engines look to the text of blog posts to determine the content and context. Scanning the content and determining its context helps search engines understand where the posts and pages should appear in the search results. There is a huge industry that specializes in search engine optimization (a/k/a SEO), but I’m not really going to talk about that, as it’s somewhat controversial, and I’m not sure if it has a role to play in using feeds as a content creator.
Here are a few tips that should, in theory, help feeds become more popular. The textual content is generally more important, but these tips should make it easier to find.
…the growing ubiquity of computers has led to an explosion in digital content creation…
Metadata is data associated with content and provides some context for it. An author’s name is metadata. The date something was published is metadata. ISBNs and ISSNs are metadata. Even the title of something is metadata. These forms of metadata have been around for decades and centuries, but the growing ubiquity of computers has led to an explosion in digital content creation, and new forms of metadata to help put the content into context. Some forms of metadata are specific to certain formats. For instance, MP3 files have ID3 tags to provide information such as musical genre, the name of the artist, the name of the composer, and so on. They’re so popular, that other audio formats include similar metadata.
Blog posts automate a lot of metadata, so the author may not even be aware of its existence. As mentioned above, the title, the author’s name, and the publication date are all forms of metadata, though they’re created automatically. Just by writing a blog post, this metadata is created, and the author has little to no control over it. However, these don’t give much context to the content. They don’t explain what the content is about. To help search engines and their users understand the content in context, authors should add categories and tags.
Most feed readers – at least the ones I use – don’t understand categories and tags. They’re included in feeds and are part of the feed standards, but if the feed readers don’t use them, how useful are they? Categories and tags are useful for regular search engines, but also for feed directories. Feed directories take the information provided by categories and tags to help them understand where to place the website and its content.
Use a favicon
A favicon is a small image associated with a website when it is bookmarked or saved as a favorite. Originally, these were 16 x 16 pixels, but they eventually grew 32 x 32 pixels. With the advent of smartphones, they grew even larger. Most WordPress themes have a section called Site Identity where an administrator can set a 512 x 512 pixel Site Icon. WordPress takes this icon and creates several other icons that are appropriate for browsers and smartphones.
In feeds, a favicon is used in a special section in the metadata. Feed readers use this to identify a feed, but they’ll use a generic icon if a favicon isn’t present. Thus adding a favicon adds a bit of distinctiveness to the feed.
I’ve heard it said that images can drive traffic to a website, though I’m not 100% sure this is true. I think the text is what drives people to most websites, but images can help determine whether a reader stays or leaves. Using images won’t necessarily increase traffic, but the lack of images will often keep traffic away, so it’s useful to include them. At the very least, a blog post should include a Featured Image. A Featured Image is one that’s used to represent the post or the page on the website and in feeds.
How images are used in feeds and feed readers is a bit inconsistent. When I started working more heavily with feeds, I noticed that WordPress doesn’t include Featured Images in feeds by default. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. How a post or page appears on a website is determined by the site’s theme, which may or may not use Featured Images. How a post appears in a feed is driven by the WordPress software itself, and it doesn’t include featured images. There is a fix for it, and I’ll write about it next week, since it’s specific to WordPress, and doesn’t pertain to other blogging platforms.
Feed readers don’t understand the concept of Featured Images, so they often choose the first image in a post to represent the whole post. In my case, this usually isn’t ideal because images often pertain to a small section of text and don’t represent the whole post. IMHO, a Featured Image should be considered as part of the post’s metadata and not part of the content itself. For WordPress.com hosted websites, Fluent Reader takes one images from the website and uses it to represent each post, whereas Feedbro uses an image from each post. Despite this, feed readers are usually fine with displaying images as part of the content. Since images add a bit of visual appeal to the text, their use is encouraged.
Anytime visual content is discussed, I always try to mention accessibility. While an image may create visual appeal to a post or a page, it’s not much use to someone who’s blind or has limited vision. For every image I put on my blogs, I try to include useful metadata. WordPress makes this easy. When editing an image in WordPress, it has sections for the title, the alt text, a caption, and a description. Themes handle these fields in different ways, so they may or may not appear alongside the image. At the very least, I try to include some alt text. This a used to represent an image in a screen reading program, often for people who are visually impaired.
A photo of a woman sitting on a stool in front of a white tiled wall. A large neon circle is hanging on the wall and neon chinese characters are reflected in the glaze of the tiles. The woman is holding a coffee cup in one hand, a smartphone in the other, and has a laptop on her lap.
It’s often useful to include text description of the image, but it’s not always necessary. For instance, the alt text for this website’s favicon is simply “Academic Floss favicon”. It’s not necessary to describe the details, since they’re not very important. On the other hand, the alt text for this post’s Featured Image is quite descriptive; “A photo of a woman sitting on a stool in front of a white tiled wall. A large neon circle is hanging on the wall and neon chinese characters are reflected in the glaze of the tiles. The woman is holding a coffee cup in one hand, a smartphone in the other, and has a laptop on her lap.” This Featured Image is meant to represent the idea of a creator of digital content.
When images are used in feeds, the alt text is included, so it’s important to add something instead of leaving it blank. By making content accessible to people with visual impairments, it expands the content’s potential reach.
Most of these tips are useful for any blogger, whether or not the use feeds. However, feeds are a segment of internet traffic that shouldn’t be ignored. By following these tips, bloggers, vloggers, and other content creators can present their work in ways that should appeal to everyone.
Next week, I’ll put up a post about forcing WordPress to add Featured Images to feeds. Since it’s specific to WordPress software, it’s more appropriate to make it a separate post.