Earlier today, Sharon posted an article that asks a simple, but profound question, Should you really unlink your feeds?.
The idea comes from Tim Maly who makes the compelling case that combining all of your content into one feed is disruptive to yourself, your friends and your readers. One of the major reasons is that it results in your content being duplicated all over the Web as search engines pick up both your source content and the feeds that you tell to pull from the sources (IE: Friendfeed).
However, there is another kind of RSS feed copying that is getting a great deal of attention and that’s the kind of copying that happens without permission. It’s the kind of RSS use, also known as scraping, that gives rise to spam blogs and other garbage sites, as well as other, more legitimate services.
So how do you prevent your feeds from being copied while still encouraging users to subscribe to your work and allow other legitimate works? There are many different approaches but here are four that you can take advantage of today, literally in the time it takes to read this post.
From a content creator standpoint, RSS feeds are a mixed blessing. On one hand, they allow readers to subscribe to your site and get your updates delivered to them, on the downside, since they are essentially raw versions of your content with predictable formatting, it is like handing over your content on a silver platter to those who wish to use it for more nefarious reasons.
In short, whatever you put into an RSS feed, someone can trivially extract the content and place it on another site. Since all RSS feeds are formatted the same way, there’s no need for human involvement as one script can literally parse millions of feeds. This is how spammers fill up thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of spam blogs in a few a hours.
So, if you have an RSS feed for your blog, or anywhere else for that matter, it is worth taking a moment to figure out what you can do to reduce this kind of unwanted copying or at least minimize its negative impact.
With that in mind, here are four tips to help you keep your RSS feeds safe(r).
1. Use a Feed Footer
Feed footers may not prevent others from scraping your feed, but it ensures that your content is always identified wherever it appears and links back to you. A good footer should contain a link back to your copyright information (copyright symbol, year, name, site name, etc.) and a link back to your site. Don’t put warnings in the footer as it may confuse legitimate readers who are viewing the content on Google Reader or elsewhere.
There are many different WordPress plugins that can do this, including Ozh’s Better Feed Plugin, or you can simply edit your RSS files. Blogspot has a setting for feed signature that you can use to add the HTML you want.
2. Use a Digital Fingerprint
While you are working on your feed footer, take the opportunity to add a digital fingerprint to your content.
A digital fingerprint is a short but unique series of letters and numbers that defines your content (EX: “a1b2c3d4”). Ideally, if you search Google for it, no results should come up. That way, all matches for it almost certainly pertain to you scraped copies of your work.
Once you’ve done that, set up a Google Alert for your digital fingerprint and be emailed every time scraped versions of your content appear on the Web. From there, you can easily shut down most infringing sites by contacting their host.
3. Use .htaccess
Though a bit more technical in nature, if you operate your own domain and have access to your .htaccess file, you can use it to block sites that are scraping your feed.
This only works if you are self-hosted and aren’t using a third party service, such as FeedBurner, to handle your feed subscriptions. Also, you have to use a site like Domain Tools, to determine the IP address of the server. Once you do that, you can then block it from accessing your server.
However, be careful with this one, you don’t want to accidentally block legitimate readers from accessing your feed or your site.
4. Limit What is In Your Feed
It is important to remember that anything that is not in your feed can’t be scraped by most spammers. As such, if you don’t put something in your feed, it is much safer than the content that is.
On that front, consider truncating your feed. Though partial feeds are very unpopular with readers, which is why I am loathe to recommend them, it may be a good solution for sites without a lot of RSS subscribers.
Also, you may wish to look at removing images from your RSS feed Typically, spam sites not only pick those up, but hotlink them from your server. This can create a real problem for you as you are paying the bandwidth to host content on their sites. Worse still, traditional tools, such as referrer checking, causes images to break in your RSS feed as people access it via Web-based readers.
In short, if you don’t want something scraped, don’t put it in your feed.
In the end, RSS feeds do bloggers far more good than they do harm. For every scraper or spammer, there are likely dozens, if not more, legitimate readers. It is much better to deal with the cases of infringement that do come up than it is to shut down an avenue to your content that many legitimate readers likely enjoy.
That being said, it doesn’t mean you should offer your content up on a silver platter with no strings attached. You can easily monitor/track content placed into your RSS feed and then either shut down or block those that choose to misuse your content.
While there’s no “one size fits all” solution to these issues, there is little doubt that there are tools available to you that you can use to protect your content while also giving to those who want it.