UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

RSS And The Hero Portal

Posted by Brian Kelly on 13 February 2007

I recently received a copy of “Hero Headlines” which contains news from Hero Ltd, “the company behind the UK’s official online gateway to higher education and research opportunities“.

RSS Feeds On The Hero Portal Web Site

The newsletter included an article about the new-look HERO Web site, which was relaunched in November 2006.

The article mentioned that the Web site now makes use of RSS. Looking at the What is RSS? page I was pleased to find that RSS is being used not only for news, but also for syndication of feature articles and press releases. In addition the Web site explains what RSS is and provides helpful advice on using RSS readers.

Well done, Hero. I think a national portal to UK Universities, such as Hero, helps to maximise awareness of and access to information about the sector. (I should disclose, BTW, that I was a member of a Hero Technical Advisory Group, several years ago).
But what else could a national portal such as Hero provide? How about:

  • An RSS feed for search results
  • Direct access to RSS feeds from individual institutions
  • Geographical metadata for pages about individual institutions
  • A Google Maps mashup providing additional information about the institutions
  • An OPML feed which aggregates the various RSS feeds

I’ll talk some more about these issues in future postings – but for now I’d be interested in what you might like to see from a national portal.

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17 Responses to “RSS And The Hero Portal”

  1. Brian,

    The Hero feeds are fine, and the advice on RSS at the Hero site is reasonable, though I don’t think its complete.

    For example, some people who click on their RSS buttons, will be presented with:



    HERO | Latest Features
    Features from the HERO site

    The above means nothing to most people.

    Likewise, many who click on the UK Web Focus RSS button will see:




    UK Web Focus

    http://ukwebfocus.wordpress.com

    What are they to make of this?

    Another example – When I click on the RSS feed button on The Bookseller website, I am asked whether I want to save a file.

    RSS is not user friendly enough, at the present time. There seems no way to explain, in simple terms, all the various ways to subscribe/what subscribing means/and exactly how to subscribe. Or am I missing something?

    Roddy

  2. Hi Roddy – I think you’ve raised an important issue about the take-up of technologies by non-techies. However I still think there are a couple of things you’ve missed:
    o In your case if your institution upgrades its browsers from IE 6 to IE 7 you’ll find the RSS page is rendered as a readable document, and it is much easier to include the feed in IE’s RSS reader. You’ll also benefit if your institution upggrades to FireFox 2.0 (with the added benefits that this will render pages containing CSS correctly.
    o The friendly librarians who can advise their users :-)
    o Your institution’s information literacy strategy, which should help ensure your users develop an understanding of key technologies such as RSS.
    o The ‘.net generation’ of students who are increasingly likely to understand RSS (this point energed at the Staer Gazing conference in Edinburgh which I spoke at back in November – two students mentioned RSS as the technology students found useful, and wanted their lecturers to provide RSS feeds for a variety of resources).

    On addition, your friendly IT Services department can help by installing software such as the RSS Panel (for FireFox). In the image bin my poisting this is the floating window which provides much easier access to RSS feeds: an orange floatinbg window has appeared — I click on the open window box, and volia, the feeds appear ;-)

    It strikes me that many of the problems you’ve been experiencing seem to be due to the browser you use / have to use!

  3. Brian,

    Thanks for that. What you say is, naturally, true. The issue may eventually go away, but I think that many institutions may be in our situation – using ‘old’ browsers, with little time to upgrade. Looking at global browser tracking for the Internet Resources Newsletter gives, for example:

    MSIE 6 151132 65.98%
    MSIE 5 41117 17.95%
    Netscape 7 28010 12.23%
    Netscape 4 4653 2.03%
    Netscape 3 1871 0.81%
    Other 1083 0.47%
    MSIE 4 868 0.37%
    Opera 6 164 0.07%
    Netscape 2 30 0.01%
    AOL 4 22 0.00%
    MSIE 3 12 0.00%
    Opera 5 8 0.00%
    WebTV 1 7 0.00%

    That’s a lot of people using browsers which may have problems with RSS.

    The librarians at HW have been discussing how to advise people on using RSS. Should we try to write out own advice page? This has maintenance issues, and would surely repeat what’s been written many times elsewhere. The problem is that we can’t find a good, up to date, accurate RSS Help page.

    So we’re simply pointing to our own institutional RSS Help page from our Blog. See http://hwlibrary.wordpress.com/ for the link beside the RSS icon.

    Roddy

  4. Hi Roddy – perhaps we need viral marketing to help explain RSS. Something I’ll be addressing tomorrow, but for now will any of the RSS videos on YouTube help?

    Another suggestion for, as you point out, the large numbers of IE 6 users would be for the RSS providers to style the page. If you view the RSS file of one of my Podcasts you should find it easier to interpret that the normal RSS files (which you’ll find if your view the source of the file). Perhaps that approach is another answer?

    My third suggestion would be for the authors of user-friendly RSS guides to make their information available for others to reuse, by providing a Crearive Commons licence. The SPineless (great title, BTW) blog for Heriot-Watt library does have a useful set of links about RSS – but I notice the copyright statement at the bottom of the page. Wouldn’t it be great if the library sector (especially those who are actively involved in open access work) were to demonstrate their committment to openness by encouraging re-use of contewnt created within the library (as I suggested a few yars ago in a paper on “Let’s Free IT Support Materials!“)

    Brian

    PS Another solution for users who can’t install FireFox on their desktop is to make use of FireFox Portable from a memory stick.

  5. Hi Roddy, Brian –

    Some tips that I’ve come across:

    (1) It may be worth having a dedicated landing page for subscribers – http://www.you.com/subscribe. Not only does this mean you have a specific page to send people to, but also gives you room for explaining the what/why/how of rss.

    (2) You could also mention the feed frequently in correspondence and web-content, with a call to action – “if you find this content useful, get free updates by rss or email”

    (3) Let people subscribe to the feed via email as well (I’m working on this at the moment for my website)

    (4) Since our website has a large number of feeds (1 for each content tag, and a news feed, and a blog), I spent a good while researching a few key paragraphs on the what/why/how. Copyblogger.com has a fantastic article that he encourages others to use; and you’re also free to use the one I’ve written too. Alternatively, feedback is welcome! My target audience was researchers and librarians.

  6. Thanks Brian.

    YouTube videos may help, but I doubt whether people who want a quick, easy to understand, up-to-date and brief guide to explaining what they see when they click on an RSS feed will really be motivated to watch them.

    Styling the page – that sounds much better, but now a guide to styling pages is needed for RSS providers! Not all RSS providers understand the process of what they are doing. How do you style a WordPress feed, for example? (I don’t understand what is meant by ‘styling’)

    The third suggestion sounds best – but how about an authoritative guide from Ukoln – one that everyone else could point to instead of everyone duplicating such effort?

    Firefox Portable on a memory stick – possible, but sounds too fiddly.

    Roddy

  7. Thanks James.

    Both those pages are good. I’ll mention them in the Blogorama section of the next Internet Resources Newswletter.

    Neither explains what to do when you click on a feed icon and get a popup “do you want to save this file…” which happens to me, for example, at thebookseller.com website (and sometimes other sites as well).

    Its in cases like that, that many users must simply give up.

    Roddy

  8. Hi Roddy – yes I can confirm that clicking on the bookseller.com‘s RSS feed results in a Save As dialogue box (in FireFox) to appear :-(
    I suspect that this problem may be due to the MIME type associated with the file.
    Using the SOMiS Web Wizard tool I find that thebookseller.com’s RSS file has a MIME type of ‘application/rss+xml‘. This blog’s RSS feed, in contrast has a content type of ‘text/xml‘. This would suggest that a change in MIME type to ‘text+xml‘ might cure the problem (although, confusingly, Olivier Thereaux recently suggested that ‘application/rss+xml‘ may be recommended for RSS 1.0 feeds).
    Whatever the answer to this problem is, as you suggest, a bigger issue is how should this problem be solved. If Web sites such as thebookseller.com aren’t working in important areaas such as allowing users to easily exploit their RSS feeds, them maybe this is a similar problem to Web sites being inaccessible – and we may need a grass roots movement to encourage use of best practices complemented by education for the content providers.

  9. Roddy, there are two ways of styling an RSS feed. One is by linking to a CSS file in the feed. The first google hit for “rss css” gave me http://www.petefreitag.com/item/208.cfm which works.

    The other way is to use an XSL Stylesheet (as we do on most of our feeds at Bath, see a news feed and a podcast feed). You could copy our example or follow the thorough tutorial on http://www.xefteri.com/articles/show.cfm?id=24

  10. I previously contacted TheBookSeller webmaster. He sent the URL by email, so I have managed to subscribe to their feed via Bloglines, but others won’t be able to unless they go to the same effort. The same thing (Save As dialogue box) happens with at least some of Ingenta’s RSS feeds for journals (and I also contacted their webmaster, previously). Thats as much time as I have for grass roots :-)

  11. Hi Roddy, yes that’s a fair point about the bookseller website, and similar ones. It’s up to the webdesigner to test those problems and make sure it works. The user just expects it to work. First time, every time.

    Can I sign up to your internet resources newsletter?

  12. Hi Roddy – just a reminder that librarians have in-depth experiences of solving problems users have with one technology. Many thanks to Elaine Swift for bringing this to my attention.

  13. just on that thebooksellers issue…is it just me, or is that “rss feed” actually an atom feed, served as if it were rss? in that case, no wonder there are interoperability issues…

  14. Ahh. Thanks Patrick. Not only is it an Atom feed masquerading as RSS 1.0, but, passsing it through the Feed Valitator I discover that it’s invalid Atom :-(

    Seems like we’re revisiting the dodgy HTML pages we experienced in the past – it looks OK in my user agent; I’m not interested in problems you may be gaving.

    If we can’t get in right for simple formats such as RSS and Atom what chance do we have with more complex formats?

  15. I think that what Phil says above would work if you were creating feeds yourself. If you’re feed is from, say, a WordPress Blog, e.g. http://hwlibrary.wordpress.com/feed then there doesn’t seem much you can do, and the same WRT rssxpress feeds e.g. http://rssxpress.ukoln.ac.uk/view.cgi?rss_url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.hw.ac.uk%2Flibwww%2Firn%2Firn.rss or am I wrong?

    Brian – I love that YouTube! :-)

    Roddy

  16. Hi Roddy – yes, you’re right, the suggestions Phil made apply to RSS you/your organisation manages.
    The comments about UKOLN’s RSSXpress tool isn’t correct, though. This is an example of an RSS reader which gives a formatted display (and if you use RSSxpress lite you can apply your own display. Note this is a service intended for Web authors, not end users.
    Glad you enjoyed the You Tube video. I think I can honestly say it’s my favourite Norwegian (or is it Danish) video clip!

  17. Roddy MacLeod said

    Interesting survey of RSS Readig Habits: http://research.microsoft.com/acid/rss/

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