This was going to be something for the top section of the month in review, but it ended up being a bit longer than I would like, so I’ll just complain about WordPress.com or something on the 30th.
So over there in the side bar on the right hand side of the blog, there is my latest attempt to create a unified feed for a small corner of the MMO blogesphere. This is, of course, driven entirely from jealousy at the wonderful blog roll widget that people using Google’s Blogger platform have access to. WordPress.com will never give us anything like this because, as I have been told by a designated representative of the organization, blog rolls are a thing of the past.
Such is life.
Now, there are any number of ways with a sufficient application of effort, technology, and/or money, I could enable a comparable feature on my own side bar.
Hell, I could just move to the Blogger platform. Simple and done. I just happen to like just about everything else about WordPress.com better than Blogger, up to and including the whole not being an insignificant part of Google and thus always in danger of being discarded for some new vision of the future or if Sergey is having a bad day. WordPress.com and I disagree on any number of things, but being a blogging platform is their thing. Plus my blog is too big to export at this point, so I am stuck with them unless I want to start again fresh.
Anyway, while I could throw money and ~effort~ at the problem, I am both cheap and lazy. So I have sought out solutions that were both low effort and low cost through various iterations of the project. The story so far…
My original plan was just to stick the VirginWorlds feed in the side bar. That was a fine solution back in the day. Viva Brent!
But since about 2009 or so, when Brent wandered off with other priorities in his life, it has been less and less of an ideal. The site is still up and running, and its accompanying feed is still in my side bar. However, the site no longer gets updated with new blogs any more, so the feed itself tends to be dominated by Massively. Not that I dislike Massively in general, but I want to promote my fellow bloggers and not a commercial site. So I started looking for a way to add a new, more blogger focused feed.
Back before the advent of Google+, Google Reader was a wonderful thing. It was fast and simple, tied in with your Google account, and generally the standard across the board for online RSS readers. The only reason not to use it was fear of the monster Google might become.
And among its many features was the ability to flag items from your reading list to be posted to an RSS feed. And so I used the WordPress RSS feed widget to put that feed in my side bar, flagging new stories for inclusion every day. This was probably a bit more “hands on” than I wanted… somewhat akin to the early days of VirginWorlds, when each link on the site represented a manual submission… but it worked.
The came Google+.
Google proceeded to wreck Google Reader in both form and function in a transparent effort to get people to stop using it in favor of Google+. Amongst the feature casualties was the RSS output. So while Google was busy kicking me off of Google+ for using a pseudonym (then quietly asking me to return) and generally annoying people by forcing integration with other services (Remember when your YouTube account HAD to be linked to Google+ for about a week? People were pissed.) they managed to alienate just enough Google Reader users to be able to claim the service was in decline and to shut it down.
Google Reader had fallen so low that when they finally turned it off, the resulting diaspora of users literally swamped all of the competing services to the point of making them unusable due to excess load. I had to swap to Feedly at a too late date when The Old Reader staff threw their hands in the air at the onslaught and walked away. (They later returned, realizing that they could, you know, make money at this, but I had already moved to Feedly.)
Which is to say, it was still pretty damn popular. Just not popular enough. That was also the fate of Google+ which, when it did not eclipse Facebook (and dear Lord, Facebook only looks good when compared to Google+, which is simply awful when it comes to usability) was “De-emphasized” in favor of other initiatives. Like finally closing down Orkut and figuring out exactly where the line is between “evil” and “not evil.”
So, even before the end of Google Reader I was out looking for an alternative. I tinkered with a few things, including Yahoo Pipes. Pipes actually looked promising, but I could never get it to create output that would work correctly with the WordPress RSS widget.
Eventually I found a site called RSS Mix.
The service was free… so it met that requirement… and was relatively low maintenance. Basically, you gave it a list of RSS feed URLs and it would mash all those together and give you an output URL for the combined RSS feed. And it mostly worked.
It was a bit of a pain to maintain. Every time I wanted to update the list of blog feeds to draw from I had to submit the whole list again for a new RSS feed, which meant keeping revisions on hand locally.
It also wasn’t terribly reliable. About half the time I would hit the blog, the feed to fail to load. That was irksome, but when it did load it did the job. The service just wasn’t meant to be polled every time somebody showed up at the site, and the WordPress.com widget doesn’t keep a cached version or anything. So a lot of the time people just saw this:
Then a few people began to note that something about the whole thing was causing ping-backs on Blogger based blogs, including one serious “stop doing that!” complaint, at which point I pulled the widget and started looking for a new solution.
I played around with some different options. Mail Chimp offers a free RSS consolidation feature. However, it appears to be completely static. It takes the URLs you hand it, makes a feed, and then never updates it. Not terribly useful, but it was free so what do you expect.
Feedly sent out an update about a site called Zapier. If you were a Feedly Pro subscribe, and I am, you could take advantage of the data integration tools that Zapier offered. This included some RSS feed tools. I got that to work, but to have more than a couple blogs in the feed I would have to subscribe to Zapier as well, which wanted monthly fee in the subscription MMO range. That failed the cheapskate test.
Eventually I stumbled onto a site called IFTTT, which is short for “If This Then That.” This was mentioned at one point as a service that could access Feedly Pro features. It could take output from Feedly and turn it into something else, I just wasn’t sure what.
I signed up for an account, which was free and thus right in my price range, and started tinkering with it. I couldn’t get it to output directly to anything in WordPress that seemed useful, at least not for a side bar widget, but I found that, among the things it could output to, was a site called Pinboard.
Pinboard is described as a “social bookmarking” site, akin to what Delicious was at one time. I had never used Delicious, but reading through the descriptions at Pinboard, it could take bookmark input and would turn it into an RSS feed output. That sounded like the ticket. However, in order to keep spam and such down, Pinboard charges an up front, one time fee to join the service. It is based on how many people use the service already, basically you have to pay a penny for everybody who got there ahead of you. My total to join was $10.46, which was well within the cheapskate budget if it worked out. (I suspect that they would change that pricing policy if a lot of people started showing up. I think a $10 barrier to entry is fine, but if it had been $35 or $50, I might have walked on by.)
Between the three services, I was able to create a rule that takes updates from my MMO Blogs category in Feedly (making me glad I set up categories when I started using the service) and posts them to my Pinboard account.
And it basically worked. Items showed up in Pinboard and they were tagged correctly so I could pull them from an RSS feed associated with that tag. All I had to do was get the data being passed to work with the WordPress RSS widget. That turned out to be the tricky bit. It took a bit of trial and error to see what worked and what did not, something that went a bit slowly because I had to wait until somebody posted something new before the feed would update and pass along my changes. Ideally I wanted something similar to what the Blogger side bar widget offered, with Blog Name, Post Name, and how long ago it was published. Eventually, paring down the data being passed to the bare minimum, I got the WordPress widget to display what I wanted.
And I ended up with something that is mostly what I want.
It doesn’t put a nice little icon next to each blog title, the format or title and blog name differs depending on which service is being used, and the the published time is displayed as an absolute in Pacific Time rather than a friendly “2 hours ago” sort of way. But it mostly works and, now that the one time expense is out of the way, it is both cheap and easy to maintain.
Furthermore, it is flexible. I can sort our who goes into the feed easily, by just moving things around in Feedly categories. I moved some of the blogs that are in the VirginWorlds feed to a special “no feed” category, since I still have that feed in my side bar as well. Trying to limit double exposure there, which mostly affects Syp and Tobold at this point. I can create additional RSS feeds from my Feedly account. I am looking into making one for EVE Online blogs for my other site and another for official game company feeds to put somewhere on the sidebar here. (There is currently an experimental version down at the very bottom of the side bar, if you scroll way down.)
So, mission accomplished!
Yeah, But Why Bother?
So all of that work… and all of those words… later, you might well ask why I deemed this important enough to pursue at all.
Yes, there was a certain amount of envy that Blogger based blogs had a feature that WordPress.com hosted bloggers lacked. But that envy was based on the empirical observations that such a dynamic side bar widget actually attracts clicks. Both the stats related to who sends traffic here and where people here click out to, a dynamic side bar widget attracts attention. People will click on something that is both identified and visibly new or updated.
I can see from my own outbound traffic that almost nobody clicks on the static blogroll on a daily basis. But with the new feed up in the side bar, I can see multiple clicks going to specific posts that have popped up and been displayed.
I did it because it is an effective way to send people to other blogs in our little community.