If you want to be a writer, you have to read a lot of material of the style you want to write. When it comes to science writing, a lot of that material is available online through magazine and journal websites. So when I decided to start seriously working on building up an online portfolio (that’s this blog), I went to the websites of all the science writing magazines I could think of and grabbed the links to their RSS feeds. I have a feed reader on my phone and I looked forward to scanning hundreds of stories whenever I was bored for five minutes. But when I added the link for Science magazine’s main feed, I discovered something:
Science’s RSS feed sucks.
For comparison, let’s take a quick look at an update from a magazine that is doing RSS right. Popular Science’s feed updates about nine times per day, and updates generally contain a picture and a full-text story. It is possible to launch your feed reader every day or so, click on Popular Science, and read through all their new updates by just scrolling down the page. This feed design lets the reader take in a lot of information over the shortest possible period of time.
Now take a look at Science’s RSS updates. There are two critical flaws that prevent their feed adding any benefit to the reader.
Problem One: No Full-Text
The biggest, most crucial problem is the lack of a full-text story in the body of the update. Instead, there’s typically a 2-4 sentence blurb about the article, and you have to click through to the actual site in order to read it. It’s possible the feed is designed this way because Science needs the ad revenue generated by more pageviews of their actual site, but I’ve seen banner ads included in feeds from other sites. Because the reader has to click a link and wait for a new page to load every time they want to read an article, the Science RSS feed offers no enhancement over simply navigating to the Science website and reading stories there.
Problem Two: Update Dumps
The second flaw is the feed’s update schedule. I mentioned above that Popular Science usually updates nine times per day. A reader who logs in daily, as if reading a newspaper, is rewarded each time with a manageable number of new items. Science’s main feed, however, updates once every week or two with tens of items. This information dump leaves readers alternating between being overwhelmed with new information and having no contact with the feed once they’ve successfully sorted through the weekly mass. Neither feeling encourages a reader to stick with the feed.
In spite of its poorer RSS design, the Science feed has more than three times the number of subscribers as the Popular Science feed. The lack of a consistent update schedule and full-text stories in the update body doesn’t seem to be hurting Science, but it does hinder the reader’s attempts to get content quickly. The reason readers use RSS feeds instead of visiting websites is speed - they don’t want to waste time clicking on different site bookmarks and links to individual stories. As an organization dedicated to disseminating scientific information to the public, Science could only benefit by improving its feed design.