james mckay dot net
because there are few things that are less logical than business logic

The case of the disappearing feeds

Now when you announce on your blog that you are starting work in an establishment such as Parliament, you naturally brace yourself for at least a modest increase in web traffic. After all, when your place of employment features prominently on the front page of almost every newspaper in the country several times a week, people do tend to take an interest, even if you are a serious INTJ blogger writing a serious INTJ blog about technology that is not work related. You certainly don’t expect your Feedburner subscriptions to drop overnight from 50 to fifteen.

However, that was what happened to me, and it had me scratching my head a bit. What kind of people would hit the “unsubscribe” button on reading that kind of news? I know that certain individuals in Westminster get a bit of a bad press from time to time, but surely there isn’t some kind of deep-seated prejudice out there that extends to those of us whose role is to spend the entire day looking at computer screens doing fancy things with XML?

It turns out that the cause was actually somewhat more mundane. The day after I posted that particular entry, I moved my blog off my shared hosting account onto a new virtual server, and while it mostly went smoothly, I inadvertently missed out the Feedburner plugin that had been redirecting my feeds. So anyone who had subscribed to the WordPress default http://jamesmckay.net/feed/ rather than the Feedburner version at http://feeds.feedburner.com/jamesmckay would not have been counted. Okay, download latest version of plugin, install, activate, and after 24 hours, the figure on my Feedburner widget is beginning to look a little bit more respectable again.

End of story? Not quite.

For the past couple of years or so, I’ve subscribed to my own blog in Google Reader. This is mainly a diagnostic thing — it shows how long it’s taking for my blog entries to show up (it frequently takes up to about three or four hours), and that everything is displaying correctly. Now Google Reader caches old blog entries, and for as long as I could remember, the oldest one that has appeared in my list was the entry, “Pastors, get blogging!” back in November 2006. This is what you will see if you have subscribed to http://feeds.feedburner.com/jamesmckay.

Anyway, I decided to unsubscribe from my feed and re-subscribe — only to find that Google Reader had lost track of all my blog entries except the last ten.

It turns out that this is because my Feedburner feeds are now being redirected to http://feeds2.feedburner.com/jamesmckay, which Google Reader treats as a completely separate feed.

A little bit of experimentation confirmed this. My blog’s feed URL can take several different forms — it works with a trailing slash or without, with a “www.” subdomain or without, and so on. By constructing it in different ways when you plug it into Google Reader, you can get different posting histories. The longest one seems to be http://www.jamesmckay.net/feed which goes back to February 2006.

This behaviour is only to be expected, of course. I’m sure that Google could identify when two different URLs point to the same feed, and could treat similar looking ones that give the same content as one and the same. I’m sure too that they could deliver a tighter integration between Feedburner and Google Reader in this particular respect. However, that could be an over-engineered solution capable of introducing all sorts of other problems. It would have been far better if they’d just left the feed at its original location rather than chopping and changing all over the place.