When you move house, you tell people where you're moving to. Now why don't websites do the same?

Posted on 7 April 2008 in BBC, Internet (6 comments)

One of the wonders of having XML feeds is that you can keep up to date with what's going on quite nicely from one place instead of having to go through hundreds of different bookmarks, remembering what you've seen and what you've not. And it's something more and more sites are now realising that they should provide, and which will bring them traffic.

However whilst the web world is embracing this new way of thinking, it's not always particularly good at staying in that mindset. There's still an amazing number of situations where sites build up a substantial user base on feeds, and then just abandon them!

The cause is the inevitable site redesign.

I'm sure everyone has, at some time in their life, ended up at a website and seen something that's along the lines of "Sorry, we've just redesigned our wesbite and it's far more work to put in place redirects to the new locations, than it is to simply put this message up and let you do it instead."

The buck is passed from the web team who own the content, to you, the person who want the content. And personally, I barely bother and go off somewhere else.

Now that user experience is bad enough in itself, but now consider whatelse might have changed location in that redesign. Yep, the website XML feed.

A site is redesigned and then, suddenly, out of the blue, with no warning at all, all your subscribers stop finding out your updates.

All of a sudden, they stop visiting.

I've experienced it far too many times. The latest site to inflict this upon me is the BBC's Doctor Who website, who have long provided a feed of their news pages. This morning it occurred to me that, what with the new series, I should be expecting some sort of flurry of posts coming through into Bloglines but instead it was stuck on something from 1 April.

Tracking it down, I found out that the team had had the painters in, and yep, they'd moved the location of the XML feed. The old feed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho­/news/syndication/rss091.xml had been abandoned - left to rot - in favour of a new feed at http://feeds.bbc.co.uk/doctorw­ho/rss.xml.

All of a sudden, I was out of the loop. And not just me - Bloglines lists 246 subscribers to that feed. My own estimates put Bloglines as having around a third of the newsreader market, which implies that
roughly 750 Doctor Who users will be experiencing the same problem.

In contrast, just four people have subscribed to the new Doctor Who feed.

It would be completely unfair to single out the Doctor Who site here as this happens all the time. I had exactly the same problem when Broadcast redesigned recently, and for that matter, the Independent too.

And it's all a sympton of that wider problem - redesign plans never seem include the task of writing the redirects from old content to new versions. Hey many websites don't even see the point when they could just get the user to do it themselves (ignoring the fact that many will do what I do - just give up and go elsewhere). If the team do want to do the job properly, the task is generally de-prioritised by the powers that be because it's "not important" . (Kudos incidentally to the Guardian team - since their recent redesign, I've still yet to find an old URL that doesn't redirect nicely. Must have taken them ages to make sure that everyone made their way from old URLs to new.)

Unfortunately it is important. And in fewer places is it more important than XML feeds, because not doing so, is throwing away your users.

Getting a regular user for a website is not easy. Keeping them is even harder. The holy grail for any website is regular users who come back time and time again because they want to. Just the kind of person who would subscribe to your XML feed!

Cut them off and what will happen? You're going to start losing your users. It might be a short term loss until they realise that nothing is appearing and then go hunt it out. Or it could be a long term loss -
where they just forget and never come back. Or worse - they get annoyed with you, think less of you, moan about you on the internet and then never come back.

Now lets be honest - the Doctor Who website is unlikely to suffer particular damage to its visitor figures from them forgetting to put a redirect in from their old feed to the new - it's a big site with many sections. However there's many sites that stand more to lose. And as more and more people start devouring the web through syndication feeds, it's going to be more and more important that attitudes change. Because one day, not telling people about your new feed location is actually going to start doing some serious damage.

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Jason said:

Or they could just design the URLs correctly in the first place, so you don't have to move them.

Posted on 7 April 2008 at 2:45 PM

Andrew Bowden said:

Well obviously that's the ultimate desire. Ain't always going to happen sadly.

Posted on 7 April 2008 at 4:34 PM

Simon Brunning said:

Thanks for noticing. It did indeed take ages to get all the redirects right, but we think it's worth it. ;-)

Onward and upward. Sport & Football coming next...

Posted on 7 April 2008 at 4:41 PM

Steve Boswell said:

Thank you for reminding me that I've completely forgotten to tell everyone using my website's RSS feed that it's been moved! It's quite embarrassing, because I get so annoyed when other people move pages and change links...

Posted on 7 April 2008 at 5:34 PM

Garrif said:

Great blog - hope all is well with the interactive side of Freesat.

http://feeds.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/rss.xml# I just wanted to point out that there is a hash at the end of the link.

Posted on 7 April 2008 at 5:44 PM

Andrew Bowden said:

Simon - it's always worth the effort in my mind, even if it is painful - and I've done enough in my time to know the pain on a small-medium sized site (I have something like six years of redirects floating around on this site - half the time I have redirects which redirect to redirects which redirect to redirects. I probably should tidy it up sometime!) so goodness knows how the Guardian's looks! But it was worth it when, a couple of days after the Media section changed, I was trying to look up and old article and everything just worked. Bliss!

Steve - I have to say, I have done that myself (what was that about people in glass houses?) In the end I decided to subscribe in Bloglines to most feeds I look after - very useful for checking that everything is working as I expect.

Garrif - the hash doesn't actually matter - it will just get ignored by browsers and news readers.

Posted on 8 April 2008 at 9:38 AM

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