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TAMU Webmaster's Blog


Information and insight from the A&M Webmasters

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Feeds Based Web Design

As we have gone through the road show for the new university website project I have repeatedly stressed the fact that the new site, and indeed almost everything that we now produce, will be heavily dependent on RSS feeds.   Often, however, these discussions will gloss over what a feed is, the value of using feeds, and how the data is processed.

At its most basic, a feed is a data file that is placed online to be downloaded and processed by remote applications.  This allows your content to be displayed and used on other sites across campus, widening the exposure for your information.  In order to be read and processed by applications, feeds are formatted with a specific syntax.

There are several different feed syntaxes, including XML, RSS, Atom, JSON, and many more.  Which one you use depends mostly on the type of information you want distributed.  XML and JSON are both open ended and can contain pretty much any information you want.  RSS was developed specifically for a limited payload, primarily things like title, URL, and description.  This makes it perfect for transferring news article information.  It has, in fact, become the industry standard in this area and is the format that we have settled on for processing news articles into www.tamu.edu.

So how do you process these files once they have been provided?  The widespread use of these file formats has made our life easy in this respect.  Many programming languages have functions for processing them built into the core language.  Many will also have third-party suites of classes/functions that you can include into your code and make life easier.  For example, we use the simplepie PHP code suite for processing most of our RSS feeds.  It is well documented, easy to download and install, and simple to use.  It is the same code that powers WordPress feed processing, so is a well maintained and supported package.

One caveat that we have found – never completely trust the source of the data feed.  If it is not valid syntax it often will not be properly processed by your script.  You also have to watch out for non-legal characters.  Most often these will be the curly-quotes or n-dashes, or other such characters that Microsoft products use.  You will want to create a function that you can pass the feed through to strip out these illegal characters and replace them with their proper values before continue to process and display the content from the data feed.

Creating the feed in the first place is a completely different ballgame.  If you have a good Content Management System or use a blogging platform like WordPress then RSS is built into the system and sharing feeds becomes easy.  If not, you can create your own feed fairly easily.  Just have a look at the RSS specifications, and create a program that will take your content data and write it to a file (or as an online web service response) that is formatted according to the proper RSS syntax.

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Monday, June 7th, 2010 Programming 1 Comment

Images in News Feed

We are happy to announce a new, if minor, improvement to the University News and Information website.  In the new system, we are able to include thumbnail images associated with each story.  Now these will be included in the RSS feed as well.  Any story that has a thumbnail will now include a link to its thumbnail in an <enclosure> feed tag, which can be parsed out by most standard RSS libraries.

This doesn’t have any large immediate impact, but anyone who wants to include the news on their website can now do so with images.  In the long term we actually plan on using this concept on the front page of the university website to create some real “Feature Articles” and thereby add some visual spice to what is now a somewhat mundane text-list of headlines.

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Monday, April 5th, 2010 News No Comments

TAMU News Website

Two weeks after deploying the new TAMU News website I’m experiencing something rather novel.  Usually when I spend as much time developing a site as we spent on this one I’m burned out on it by the time it goes to publication — while everyone is is celebrating a fresh new site I’m already tired of looking at it.  Just the opposite has happened with the news site though; I have actually come to like it more after it went live than I did before.

I think part of this was that during development I was dealing with static content and graphics.  One of the best parts of the new site, though, is the equally new focus we’ve taken on using high quality photos and graphics for all elements of the site.  With each element changing on a weekly, and even daily, basis this means that the site continues to seem fresh rather than quickly getting stale.

Using the power of WordPress and RSS feeds, we were also able to add the “Texas A&M in the News” and the “Around Campus” sections, as well as the “Engineering Works” podcast series,  further making the site more dynamic and interesting.  We pushed WordPress to its limits, many times hacking a plugin and even writing our own PHP functions to do what we needed to get done.

The end result was well worth the effort though. Getting this site out the door as the first project of the year bodes well. As I look at some of the other projects,  we have really cool stuff lined up for this year.  If we can avoid getting sidetracked by other out-of-the-blue demands we should be able to make some big improvements on the university web presence.

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Monday, February 1st, 2010 News No Comments

New News Site

Tomorrow we will be launching a new Texas A&M News and Information site.  We will be moving away from an antiqutied article manager to a site build on the latest version of WordPress.  There will be many new features build into the site, many leveraging the power of RSS feeds to bring in information from outside sources.

We anticipate that there will be a little downtime with the transition but will strive to make it as minimal as possible.

One thing that webmasters around campus should be aware of – if you are currently subscribing to the “recent articles” feed from the old system you should update your links to either http://feeds.feedburner.com/tamuNewsFull or http://tamunews.tamu.edu/feed/.  If you already subscribe to the full version of the feed you won’t need to change anything (but might have a lag as Feedburner updates their links.)

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Thursday, January 14th, 2010 News 1 Comment

New Addresses for Validators

We have put the finishing touches on the validators we announced in late January. There are now several ways to get to the validators depending on how you best remember them. The W3C validators are not all at one URL, so we’ve taken both approaches. You can access them from the subdomains the W3C uses (jigsaw, feedvalidator, etc) or you can use the validator.tamu.edu base domain with paths.

If there are any other helpful open source validators you would like to see inside the firewall please contact us and we will see about getting them online here. These validators are part of our commitment to helping the campus community produce the highest quality web work possible.

W3C HTML Validator

W3C CSS Validator

W3C Feed Validator (RSS and ATOM)

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Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009 CSS, HTML, Ongoing Projects 1 Comment

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