Yesterday, Mark Ghosh at Weblog Tools Collection made an announcement that, due to the rampant abuse of their RSS feed, that the site would be moving over to a truncated, or shortened, feed.
However, the decision did not last long. After less than three hours, Ghosh reactivated the full feeds after many of the site’s readers posted comments objecting to the change. He instead said he would experiment with RSS footer and reopen the full feed.
Still, Ghosh’s frustration is more than understandable. With countless spam blogs scraping content without permission, the temptation to deny them access is understandable. However, users overwhelmingly prefer full RSS feeds and denying access to spammers is almost impossible without hindering access by legitimate aggregators.
The good news is that there are alternatives to shortening your RSS feed, practical ways to protect your content without cutting off your readers.
5. Log Analysis
One of the most basic ways to find out if someone is misusing your RSS feed is to look at your log files and see where your images are appearing. With most log analysis applications, this is fairly trivial to do.
The basic premise is this, if you include images within your RSS feed, anyone that republishes it, with or without permission, is using them as well and, by seeing the unusual places they appear, you can figure out who is likely scraping your feed.
If you use this in conjunction with an RSS footer (see below) to add a small invisible image to your feed, you can actually track your RSS feed’s usage both by your subscribers and by any potential scrapers.
Though, by itself, this will do nothing to actual stop misuse of your feed, as part of an effective response strategy, it can enable you to locate and stop spammers before they have the chance to hurt you.
4. RSS Footer
This is the solution that Ghosh settled upon. Using the RSS Footer Plugin will add a link to your site or any other information you request to the footer of your feed. This information, should the feed be scraped, will appear on the scraper site.
Since you can make this footer anything you want, you could put a copyright warning, use it to license your feed under a Creative Commons License or just put a simple link back to your site. You could also insert a tracking image.
You can also achieve similar functionality through FeedBurner’s Feed Flare service, by editing your Blogger template or even by just hacking your WordPress RSS file.
CopyFeed is a Swiss army knife of RSS management in WordPress. It allows you to add a wide variety of information to the feed, including the IP address of the person receiving it. From there, the plugin has the ability to blacklist unwanted users from accessing your feed, allowing you to “ban” spammers from seeing your feed while letting your visitors in.
All of this is in addition adding footers to the feed, fixing accidental truncation and many more features.
The only drawback to CopyFeed is some have reported issues with it in the latest version of WordPress. If you decide to use this plugin, do so with caution as it is also possible to ban legitimate RSS readers (including Google Reader). Be careful to research each ban before you put it into effect.
FeedBurner is a very powerful feed management tool that provides some great feed modifications, including the ability to provide “Web Friendly” version of the feed, and powerful statistics tool. Though using it requires surrendering control of your feed to FeedBurner, something that likely makes it a poor deal for self-hosted bloggers, but bloggers on platforms such as Blogger and Typepad, where FeedBurner is easily integrated, will see a great deal of benefit.
One of the more powerful features of FeedBurner is the ability to view “Uncommon Uses”, which are uses of your feed that are outside the norm. As a service that manages hundreds of thousands of feeds with many millions of visitors, FeedBurner is easily able to detect uses of the feed outside of the norm.
Also, as mentioned above, FeedBurner allows users to manipulate the feed by adding custom footers and other “flares”, making the feed both easier to monitor and more powerful for end users.
Though FairShare won’t do anything to prevent your content from being stolen, there is no more powerful or simple tool for tracking how your RSS-based content is used.
All you do is provide FairShare with the RSS feed of your site and provides you another feed for you to subscribe to that lists all of the matches the service finds. It uses matching technology usually only available to large corporations but provides it for free.
The only limitation to FairShare is that one has to do the investigating, sorting and follow up on the matches themselves. Also, FairShare is limited to only 50 matches per day. However, if one has more use than that, they probably need something more powerful regardless.
All in all, FairShare is a must-use tool for any blogger, even if they are only curious to see how their content is being used on the Web.
In the end, there are situations where truncating the feed may be a good alternative, but those cases are extreme ones. Bloggers have many options at their disposal to track and protect their feed short of truncation that are well worth trying.
If these techniques do not work or are inadequate, then it may well be worth looking at taking drastic steps. However, doing so risks losing a large number of subscribers. The benefits always have to be weighed against the potential drawbacks.
There is no one right answer when it comes to full vs. short feeds, every blogger has to decide for themselves, but I do encourage bloggers to at least try alternatives before risking the backlash of their readers.
In the end, Ghosh made a smart decision and it is one that many bloggers could learn from.