Branded RSS in the era of platform expulsion
Does your podcast RSS feed use your own domain, or someone else’s?
Allan Tépper, September 6, 2018. last updated September 20, 2018 (article to be continually updated)
In this article, I’ll clarify what an RSS feed is, why it’s such a critical element in order to syndicate an online show (audio or video) as a podcast, together with related analogies and anecdotes. Then I’ll explain the benefits and methods of having one with your own branding, using your own Internet domain as the RSS feed’s core. This is especially important now, in the era of platform expulsion. I’ll cover how you can get a branded RSS feed, regardless of whether you use one of two particular dedicated podcast media hosts which permit it so far (Blubrry or Libsyn), or you self-host your show(s), as is the case with mine, that of James Cridland (Podnews), Leo Laporte (TWiT show & network) and —most recently— the FCC (US Federal Communications Commission’s More than Seven Dirty Words). I also discuss this aloud with Chris Curran on myBeyondPodcasting show (episode 8 embedded ahead).
What’s an RSS, in general and in podcasting?
RSS officially stands for Rich Site Summary, although it is unofficially called Really Simple Syndication, which I happen to like better than the official name. That’s because —whether it is used for conventional blogging or podcasting, the RSS feed is the key element which is required to syndicate your content elsewhere, and allow it to automatically appear and to be subscribed via other platforms. In the case of audio syndication, the compliant RSS feed is what allows you to syndicate your online, on-demand show on key platforms including Apple Podcasts (previously called iTunes, still in transition as of publication of this article), Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn and more.
If you have ever visited a conventional AM/FM radio station (I’ve been interviewed in several, in many different countries), you’ll know that there is usually a speaker on the wall in the lobby. That speaker is generally connected to the station’s final output (before reaching the transmitter), not to a radio receiver. The analogy I make here is that when someone listens to your show directly from a website via a link connected directly to the media file (most frequently an MP3 file nowadays) like the one you’ll see below:
The above player is not via the RSS feed, and therefore it’s technically not podcasting (yet). It’s a direct link to an on-demand audio file, and it’s like being in the lobby of a radio station, where you hear the signal before it hits the transmitter and before it becomes converted to an AM or FM signal. On the other hand, the one you’ll see below is indeed connected to the RSS feed:
Many years ago, when I helped one of my consulting clients to setup his online on-demand radio show with additional syndication as a podcast, the client had assigned Administrative rights of his self-hosted WordPress website, both to me and his graphic designer. The designer was very artistic, but she wasn’t very technical. In this case, the client had decided to have four episodes ready before syndication. The day after my client received the good news from what was then only known as Apple iTunes (today, still in very slow transition to being called Apple Podcasts) had accepted his show, and his episodes were visible there, the graphic designer logged into his WordPress site to make esthetic changes. She saw the four blog posts which contained each episode and fed the RSS feed on his website, found them visibly displeasing, and removed them from the site, leaving the RSS feed empty! As you can imagine, his show and all four episodes disappeared from iTunes shortly thereafter. The analogy is as if —at a conventional AM/FM radio station— the VP of graphic design saw the antenna on the roof, found it ugly, and commanded someone to remove it ASAP, oblivious to the consequences. The end result would have been the same as what happened to this client: being “off-air”.
Why branded RSS?
Even with my old TecnoTur show (which is in voluntary hibernation), I used a branded RSS (with my own domain) via a no-longer recommended option of a service which I’ll cover in the next section. Back then, I mainly did it for branding reasons, i.e. to show off my own domain instead of someone else’s, especially since back then, it was much more common to copy and paste —or even transcribe them— to a podcatcher app. Nowadays, there is a second reason, which has become much more relevant today, in the era of platform expulsion:
Many shows and producers have been recently expelled by major platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Twitter, YouTube and even Spreaker, a media host I have covered very positively in past articles. The most famous of the expelled shows have included Infowars (Alex Jones ). This article is not about whether Infowars a good or a bad show. I personally believe that freedom of speech is freedom of speech, even —and especially— when there is disagreement. I believe that it is a very slippery slope to begin removing content selectively. Some people who hate Infowars were delighted when they heard that Infowars was expelled, but how will those same people feel when one of their favorite shows is expelled? There are reasons why libel/defamation laws exist in our society. In my humble opinion, the only practical way for platforms to make this drastic decision to expel shows is in those extreme cases when a court of law finds a show or producer guilty of this crime. (That did not happen with Infowars.) Before then, as a platform, I would tell people who don’t like a particular show simply to avoid listening to that show.
Regardless of my opinion about how that is handled by platforms, I’ll go back to the technical issues of RSS —and how having yours tied to your own brand/domain— can save you (as it saved Alex Jones):
Todd Cochrane, CEO of Blubrry/Rawvoice states:
“It’s always the extreme cases that bring out the true power of RSS.” … “We advocate podcasts controlling their RSS feeds for many reasons, and this kind of event just highlights that necessity. InfoWars is an extreme show, but like it or not, it’s still on the air because they control their own RSS feed.”
Source: here. Blubrry is one of three different ways I’ll cover to achieve getting your own branded RSS, to be covered in the next section.
How to get a branded RSS
Ancient history: Feedburner’s MyBrand feature
Many years ago (in 2009), I got the branded RSS feed for my TecnoTur show (which is currently in voluntary hibernation, while I produce my 4 active shows) via Feedburner’s optional MyBrand feature, where I sent a CNAME of my TecnoTur.us domain to make it happen. I did the same back then for my clients. I do not recommend using Feedburner nowadays. This is only to give some historical perspective.
Blubrry is one of the largest and most popular three podcast-driven media hosts and has always designed its service to have the producer (you) use your own domain as the basis of the RSS feed, as illustrated in the quote from Todd Cochrane in the prior section.
Blubrry is also the creator of PowerPress (shown above), the most popular (and free) WordPress plugin to generate podcast RSS feeds, either for self-hosters like me, James Cridland, Leo Laporte and the US-FCC, Blubrry clients or even Blubrry’s competitors. I currently use PowerPress. James Cridland wrote his own software for his RSS feed, as he told me when he was a guest on BeyondPodcasting. I don’t know what RSS-feed generation method Leo Laporte (I have been a guest on MacBreak Weekly and frequently quoted on TWiG and TWiT) or the FCC are using. I know that they are all using a branded RSS feed and are self-hosting, as clarified in the upcoming section.
Sidebar regarding HTTPS
We interrupt this 3-part explanation about how to have your own branded RSS feed, either to remind you —or explain to you— about HTTPS, something I have covered at length in prior articles. Here’s your executive summary:
- Before 2014, it was only considered important to have a secure (HTTPS) connection to a website with those that requested confidential information like credit cards and Social Security Numbers.
- In 2014, Google changed everything with its HTTPS Everywhere campaign. Google created and published a video to squash the myth that having HTTPS made all websites unacceptably slow, and how to achieve a fast site with forced HTTPS. Google also emphasized other benefits of HTTPS, like privacy and unadulterated content, and clarified that its search results would progressively favor sites that had forced HTTPS (i.e. YourWebsite.com would automatically forward to https://YourWebsite.com) and if you did everything correctly, you’d get the coveted padlock in browsers. I added forced HTTPS to all of my sites and my clients’ in 2014, even though back then it was still necessary to purchase a TLS/SSL certificate for each domain.
- In 2016, LetsEncrypt began offering free TLS/SSL certificates, but initially they were not accepted by Apple for podcast RSS feeds, and they didn’t work with IDN domains (i.e. International Domain Names, with accent marks and other diacritical marks, like AllanTépper.soy). Several months later, Apple began accepting LetsEncrypt certificates in podcast RSS feeds, and LetsEncrypt began to support IDN domains! Double yay!
- On May 29th, 2018, Apple announced that all shows syndicated as a podcast should switch to a secure (HTTPS) RSS feed, since in the future it would be an Apple requirement. (I obviously didn’t mind, since my websites and RSS feeds have been HTTPS since 2014.)
- In late July of 2018, Chrome version 68 was released and auto-updated by most installations. For those unaware, Chrome is currently the most popular browser used. After four years of giving a grace period to all of those websites which still didn’t offer forced HTTPS, Chrome finally began visibly punishing them with the words Not Secure in the upper left corner of the browser. Many of the stragglers finally added forced HTTPS to their website in the past 30 days of this writing, and some have still yet do do it, despite the embarrassing Not Secure, 4 years later. More about that ahead in this article.
Final comment about Blubrry before moving ahead
We now continue with our branded RSS feed explanation, as we left it. You haven’t missed anything!
As long as your self-hosted WordPress website with Blubrry’s PowerPress plugin already has forced HTTPS (which it should have had since 2014), both your website and your branded RSS feed already have a secure RSS feed, since PowerPress uses your same forced HTTPS domain to create the RSS feed with HTTPS.
Libsyn is considered to be the largest podcast-focused media server. The following information is based upon my own investigations and my email conversations with Rob Walch, VP of Podcaster Relations at Libsyn:
We have always supported where users can bring in their own custom domain. Here is our tutorial for setting this up. This a CNAME process – and there is a US$2 a month adder to any account level that wants to bring in their own domain name.
Thank you Rob!
Rob gave me two examples, but I’ll concentrate on the first one, which belongs to The Story Behind from Emily Prokop. (Emily happens to be from my home State of Connecticut, but to my recollection, we haven’t met or conversed so far. I am now based in Florida.) I must clarify that acquiring this important Libsyn function also gives the producer the option to have a hosted website on Libsyn with the show’s domain. This is the case with The Story Behind, but not with all Libsyn clients. For example, Chris Curran of Podcast Engineering School hosts his RSS feed and media files with Libsyn, but has an independent self-hosted WordPress website. If Chris wanted to have a branded RSS feed, he would either need to use a different domain to point to Libsyn, or create a subdomain like https://RSS.PodcastEngineeringSchool.com and create a CNAME for it, pointing to Libsyn. But let’s go back to The Story Behind . I discovered two different problems with the website, which is currently hosted at Libsyn.com:
- PROBLEM 1: As of publication time of this article, there is no active HTTPS for this domain, forced or otherwise. Libsyn was not able to give me any example of a show with a branded HTTPS as of publication time of this article, and clarified that even if an TLS/SSL certificate is purchased and properly configured, Libsyn doesn’t currently offer forced redirection from YourShow.com to https://YourShow.com, the way it should be. As a result, all shows that currently have a branded website hosted on Libsyn.com are suffering SEO punishment in Google search results, and are also being shown with the words Not Secure in Chrome, as indicated in the screenshot above.
- PROBLEM 2: As of publication time of this article, the mentioned site is displayable both with and without the WWW prefix, as shown in the screenshot above. Google has stated that there is absolutely no SEO improvement by choosing one or the other (with or without WWW), as long as it is consistent and is clarified to Google, either in the header or in their tools. What is considered very bad is to allow the site to be displayable both ways, with and without the WWW prefix. It is recommended to have one version redirect to the other.
My most popular article in Medium happens to be 5 reasons to eliminate WWW from your website (illustrated above, and the Castilian version, 5 motivos de eliminar WWW de tu sitio web), so you can tell I have 5 important reasons to prefer my websites without WWW. It’s also the preference of Auphonic.com, Hindenburg.com, Medium.com, PodcastEngineeringSchool.com, Podnews.net, WordPress.com and Yoast.com, the SEO king for WordPress self-hosters. Whatever the website owner’s preference, it should be visible one way or the other, not both ways, which is sadly what is happening with TheStoryBehindPodcast.com as of publication time of this article. Having it show both with and without WWW shows inconsistency and is bad for SEO, and not having forced HTTPS is been progressively bad for SEO since 2014.
NOTE: As of Chrome version 69, all prefixes, including HTTP://, HTTPS:// and WWW were briefly truncated before clicking on a URL to copy it. Then they received complaints and put it back, at least until version 70 is released. This does not change the aforementioned facts.
I must clarify that neither of the two Libsyn problems described above is related or damaging to a branded RSS done with Libsyn. However, those two problems are so directly related to the topic that I was compelled to point it out to Rob Walch, VP of Podcasting Relations at Libsyn, and to you, the wonderful person who is reading this article. Rob Walch has informed me that he has shared these concerns with the Libsyn development team and that it will be fixed (i.e. Libsyn will eventually offer automatic redirection), but did not have an estimated date.
Rob Walch also added that for those that do not want to set up their own custom domain, Libsyn has always supported the ability for the user to configure a 301 redirect from their feed and can make that a permanent redirect after they close down their Libsyn account (as other reputable dedicated podcast media hosts also do). I hope Libsyn will be equally nice to ex-clients after expelling them, if Libsyn ever has to expel any in the future. I wouldn’t want to wait to find out. The only way to be absolutely sure is to have your own domain as your branded RSS feed.
Many other web platforms (not targeted specifically for podcast media hosting) perfected this situation for content producers’ own domains a long time ago, with proper redirection to the HTTPS version and proper removal of the older WWW prefix. Here are some examples of that:
- AllanTepper.com (currently hosted at Medium.com. To clarify, the websites I have for all of my active shows —which are also syndicated as podcasts— are not hosted on Medium.com, nor are they currently hosted at a company like Blubrry or Libsyn, whose “middle name” is “podcasting”. After a one time fee for using a domain with Medium.com, Medium.com does not charge extra for hosting or for a TLS/SSL certificate, and neither do the servers a use to host my active shows, which are also syndicated as podcasts.)
- LeoLaporte.com (currently hosted at WordPress.com. To clarify, LeoLaporte.com is his personal site, and it’s currently hosted at WordPress.com, one of his sponsors. The website he uses for his online shows —which are also syndicated as podcasts— are not hosted at WordPress.com and the media files aren’t either, nor are they hosted at a company like Blubrry or Libsyn, whose “middle name” is “podcasting”. WordPress.com does not charge extra for the TLS/SSL certificate.)
- TheStoryographist.com (currently hosted at SquareSpace.com. SquareSpace doesn’t charge extra for the TLS/SSL certificate.)
I am very surprised that Libsyn.com has taken so long (so far, 4 years after the Google announcement), and I hope that it will be resolved very soon. I reiterate that these problems on Libsyn.com are irrelevant for producers/shows that have an outside website and want to have (or continue to have) Libsyn as a media host and RSS feed. In order to have a branded RSS feed with Libsyn, they will just need to create a CNAME of a domain or subdomain via CNAME to Libsyn, i.e. https://rss.YouShow.com, pay US$2 extra and (at least presently) acquire the TLS/SSL certificate elsewhere.
Self-hosting versus using a marketed podcast media host
First, I want to clarify how the term “self-hosting” is used in our industry, both with WordPress and with podcasting. In neither case, the term is generally being used to refer to a computer server that is located in the closet of the content producer’s home or office, although that might be considered to be the strictest use of the term. Generally speaking, a “self-hosted” WordPress website is one hosted on any server that is not WordPress.com, wherever it is located. Similarly, a “self-hosted” podcast like all of mine at publication time of this article (BeyondPodcasting, CapicúaFM, Tu radio global and Tu salud secreta), that of James Cridland (Podnews), Leo Laporte (TWiT show & network) and —most recently— the FCC (US Federal Communications Commission’s More than Seven Dirty Words, which pays homage to George Carlin). They all use servers that support byte range requests and sufficient bandwidth (enough traffic) for their respective audience, but those servers don’t mention the word podcast in their slogan or in the first advertising paragraph. Although the first-tier sales or tech support of these companies often have never heard the term byte range requests, the higher level support teams do and respond accurately.
If you choose to self-host, you need to be sure to choose a server which is adequate in those and other ways. You also need to be able to create your RSS feed some way. One way of creating your RSS feed is with the acclaimed PowerPress plugin for WordPress, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. The PowerPress plugin works for self-hosted podcasts, podcasts which host media files on Blubrry (its creator) or even those which host them on a competitor’s server.
Marketed podcast media servers’ value-added features and services
In my humble opinion, marketed podcast media servers should flaunt their value-added features and services, instead of using unjustifiable scare tactics, as some do. Here are some examples of their value-added features:
- Many dedicated podcast media servers offer fast-track submission to Spotify. Although Spotify indeed does have a way for self-hosting shows to submit, the acceptance process is much slower.
- To my knowledge, Libsyn has the best skill (i.e. app) for the Amazon Echo (Alexa) platform, since it’s the only “free” one that I know that requires no mention of a third party name for a listener to request playing your show. See Dave Jackson’s excellent video below, which shows you have to install a show’s skill (created at no extra charge by Libsyn) into an Amazon Echo (Alexa) device.
Dave Jackson owns School of Podcasting and also works for Libsyn. If you are a Libsyn client, you must request the skill for your show, at no extra charge. There are indeed other ways to get your non-Libsyn hosted show working on the Amazon Echo/Alexa platform, but they require listeners to say another name, i.e. AnyPod/MyCast/Spreaker/TuneIn, or you have to pay separately for the development. Ideally, our listeners should only have to say our show name, without any other name. Kudos to Libsyn for getting this perfect!
Fortunately, it’s much easier to make your show available with other smart speakers, like Google Home and Apple HomePod. If your show is available on Google Podcasts, it’s already available on the Google Home smart speaker. If your show is available in iTunes/Apple Podcasts, it’s already available on the Apple HomePod.
Other dedicated podcast media servers indeed also offer different and sometimes unique features, but in this article, I am only covering those companies which include the option of creating your RSS feed with your own domain.
After seeing and understanding how platforms can arbitrarily expel a show in the era of platform expulsion, it should be clear that having a branded RSS feed is more important than ever before. In this article, I have demonstrated three different ways to achieve it: with Blubrry, with Libsyn or via self-hosting your show. If you need my assistance or advice, you know how to find me.
None of the companies mentioned in this article is paying Allan Tépper or TecnoTur LLC to write this article or to appear herein. Some of the companies listed above may have contracted Tépper and/or TecnoTur LLC to carry out consulting and/or translations/localizations/transcreations. So far, none of the company’s listed above is/are sponsors of the TecnoTur , BeyondPodcasting Tu salud secreta or Tu radio global programs, although they are welcome to do so, and some are, may be (or may have been) sponsors of ProVideo Coalition magazine, where Allan Tépper is a contributor since 2008. Allan Tépper’s opinions are his own.
Copyright and use of this article
This article is copyright Allan Tépper/TecnoTur LLC. Unauthorized use is prohibited without prior approval, except for short quotes which link back to this page, which are encouraged!