Wordpress Syndication Hubs

Build a hub to aggregate content from blogs and other distributed sources

 

What the Hub?

A foundational aspect of a Connected Course is that participants, students do their work in digital spaces outside of the course site and the institution owned servers but in personal hosted blogs (Domains of Ones Own), free hosted blogs, social media sites. The connected course type hub we are going to build are based on a Wordpress site that aggregates content automatically via RSS Feeds using the Feed Wordpress plugin.

It's what DS106 originator Jim Groom calls the "Syndication Bus":

We will not spend much time on the technical nuts and bolts of what is RSS or syndication. There is a wealth of stuff out there and in the Feed Wordpress 101's Basics of Syndication.

The Common Craft RSS in Plain English video covers it well:



The Wordpress Hub we will pursue here is not the only way to build a connected course (see a collection of 4 other approaches from a 2015 DML Conference panel). But it is one that has worked effectively in many places (see examples below and more that we explore elsewhere in this workshop).

It can be messy, but in our mind, this model works in a way that reflects the distributed yet connected shape of the internet itself.

Wordpress Syndication Hubs in the Real World

These are examples Alan Levine has worked on / developed. He has also published a five part Feed Wordpress 101 guide for building sites this way that is a reference we will use.

Many more people have used and are using this same approach. These examples are from an open google doc where we collected examples of connected courses:

Try Before You Buy Build

We have a demo site that was created the same way here on StateU as you can or will do. In the spirit of the web as a network of networks of networks, A Hub of Hubs is going to try something "meta" -- it will subscribe to all hub sites you create.

This one is subscribing to three different DS106 Hub sites as well a recent site created by Ken Bauer at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, Guadalajara, Mexico.

When you use our pre-built theme, it will come with Feed Wordpress installed and configured, a clean magazine style theme, and a few other extras to not only aggregate content from the sites you choose, but also to slice and dice them into other views by category.

 

So You Have Something to Syndicate...

Below you will find the steps to build a Feed Wordpress syndicating site, as a means to learn how it works. But what sites will you subscribe to?

This is one reason why in our StateU setup we had you make a basic blog! Again are we not clever?

If you add your StateU blog's URL to this form we will all have access to each other's blogs to use as feed sources.

 

You should get access to the data when you finish the form, but if not, you can always access the responses from the form in its spreadsheet.

How to Build Your Own Hub

Let's make a hub, Bub! The instructions below are available (at least for now) only via the StateU site. Anyone can create an account there to try this pre-built syndication hub. If you want to try this on your own Wordpress site, see the five part series on Feed Wordpress 101.

Like you did when setting up your first Wordpress blog, start at your StateU dashboardand under Applications click Wordpress.

Click the Install This Application button. This time we will set up the Location settings to put this Wordpress site in a subdirectory of your own site. Because we already have a Wordpress sitting at the root of our domain, we will put this in a subdirectory. You can name it whatever you like, it will become the URL for your site too.

So in this case the site creator wants a blog at the url http://regeb.statu.org/course-hub so course-hub is what they enter for Directory:

The next section is called Versions. Under the Content heading you will see a few options for the template to use; choose Connected Course Hub to install a version of Wordpress with all of the hub functionality built in, and most of the site set up for you.

Now scroll past a few sections until you get to Wordpress Settings. You can edit your own admin user name and password, but it's not necessary-- you can log into your directly from this interface later. So you can leave the random generated values for now.

The only fields you might want to change Website Title and Website Tagline to something that better represents your new site (you can also edit this later in the Wordpress settings).

That's it! Now click the Install button in the bottom right, and just watch the progress bar dance along the screen.

When it's done, you can try the first link to see your site. You will find there, as part of the install, some example syndicated posts, along with a How to Modify this Course Hub post with the same details listed below.

Hub Set Up / Customizations

Upfront Considerations

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These are some things I ponder before even touching Wordpress. There is even more from Feed Wordpress 101 including a bit more explanation of the syndicate concept.

  • Where will I ask participants to publish? In a wide open course, you probably cannot dictate what blog platform they use, so you will end up dealing with all kinds of crazy choices like Google sites and Weebly (Weebly is very BAD with RSS, sorry Weebly lovers. It's cute, but limited). Platforms that work well with this set up include Wordpress (free or self-hosted), Blogger, tumblr, Squarespace, and Medium.

    If you can scope this to say Wordpress.com and/or Blogger, your life will be a bit less crazy with tech support. For Project Community, in 2012-2014, we had students create tumblr sites; in 2015 we had them do group Wordpress.com blogs.
  • Blogs devoted to Your Course are easier. It is alot alot alot easier to syndicate all posts from a blog than dealing with tags and categories.
  • Where will commenting happen? The typical set up is that the aggregation hub displays the title of the posts and an excerpt; all links go out to the participants blogs. In this case comments will happen "out there". If you want comments to happen in the course hub, you will want to change the settings so all links are "local" (Feed Wordpress makes a full copy of all syndicated posts even if you link out, so it is always archiving)
  • Will you want to sub group blogs? Are there groupings that will help to separate syndicated posts by say course sections? groups? roles? If there is a value in doing this, decide on categories up front. When you add a blog to your hub, you can tell Feed Wordpress to put all syndicated posts into these categories as needed.

Setting Up Your Own Hub Site

Once you are working with your copy of this site, here are some first things to do. Let's make your own categories to organize blogs.

In your Wordpress Dashboard, go to Posts -> Categories. It will look like this:

hub-cats

You are not required to use this structure; it is an approach that has worked well for other connected courses.

  • Course Info Use this category for posts you write on the site as announcements or other information.
  • Featured Once you start syndicating posts, it's a good idea to add a category like this for posts worth highlighting. You can make these available as a link, as a menu item, and in this blog, as a front page display. Consider this an approach to curating the best posts out of what might be hundreds that come into your hub. You could make this a task for other students to do (?)
  • Miscellaneous The default category. Every time a Wordpress site leaves this as "Uncategorized", a cat somewhere will cry.
  • Syndicated Okay this is a category we will add to every blog you susbscribe to, it provides a way to see the full flow.
  • The rest of the categories are "child" ones of syndicated, these are ones you might use to group syndicated posts. Maybe it is be different sections, different courses, project groups, etc. You can delete all of the silly "Cowboy" ones, and insert your own. Or do not use any, for a small class, just the Syndicated category may be enough.

So go customize your categories.

Normally on setting up a site, you would have to set all of the default settings for Feed Wordpress (under the Syndication link in the Wordpress Dashboard). But we have done all of that for you. Still, you may want to review them as well as the Feed Wordpress 101 post on the setup.

The important things to understand now about Feed Wordpress includes:

  • These settings are the default for all sites you add to the hub. You can override every setting at the per subscribed blog level.
  • These settings will take any subscribed blog posts use of tags, categories, labels and convert them all to tags on the hub. This makes all of the aggregated used methods of categorizing posts the same. Thsi way, we can use the hub's Categories to organize the whole site, and all of the syndicated blog content can be represented in a tag cloud.

Collecting Feeds for Your Site

This step is not required for the workshop but is included for your future reference.

In this demo site, and likely for a course-sized hub, it's easier to add blog urls directly to the Feed Wordpress plugin. Larger, wide open courses can be set up with a form for participants to add their sites directly (I had dreams of making this into a plugin, but alas, time). How you get your participants blogs (email? LMS) is up to you.

A middle ground solution is setting up a google form to collect participant information. I did this for ETMOOC, and processed over 500 submitted feeds.

For the purposes of this workshop, I made a form so we can share each others StateU (or any other) blog URLs. The idea is to get a collection of URLs you can experiment with. So first complete the form:

https://goo.gl/forms/35NnTt6yu0wfKght2

When done you should have access to the responses (or go directly to the spreadsheet).

If you would like to make a blog URL request Google Form just like this one (or at least to start with one loke it), I made a generalized version of one that you can copy to your own Google account.

So what do you do with the URLs?

For full details on adding feeds, see Feed Wordpress 101 on Feeding the Machine.

But let's do some ourselves. We will add a site to our hub. The easiest ones to add are sites where the entire blog is what we want to subscribe to (all posts). Feed Wordpress will be able to identity the site's RSS feed automatically./

When you go to Syndication in the Wordpress dashboard, you will see all blogs it is subscribed to; a few of them come with this copy of the site. We will deal with removing these feeds soon. But you add new subscriptions by pasting in the top right field for "New Source".

Make sure it is a full URL (starts with "http://") and that it actually points to the public URL for the blog (sometimes participants will send you a URL that is their private editors view). It mys be a URL that shows the blog when the owner is not logged into it.

Feed Wordpress will try to find the blog's RSS feed- there might be anywhere from 1-6 that it finds; usually it is the first one. If there is a preview of a post in the right box, the feed is good. Click the Use This Feed button.

feed-finder

You should get a confirmation message that the feed was added. We have one more step- to associate the blog with a sub category that you set up earlier. You can click the Configure Settings link here and then click Categories from the top settings link, or from any feed in the list, hover over and click the settings like for Categories.

Scroll down to the part of the settings with the default Categories used for this feed:

syndicated-categories

The default settings will add all posts that come into to the site to the Syndicated category. But we can additional sub categories for this blog, say to add all posts syndicated from it maybe the "Cowgirls" and "Town Folk" categories.

This is how you can create different views of your course's syndicated content. Note that any changes will apply only to newly syndicated posts. If you do this at some point after you have been syndicating posts, you will have to manually add categories. Getting this organized ahead of time will save you grey hair.

Updating Feeds

Your new hub blog will not automatically check sites until we change a setting. But you can manually check all subscribed sites from the list of Syndicated Sites by clicking the blue Update button at the top of the screen.

You can also click the Update Now button to the right of a single feed to check just that site.

In a few moments, Feed Wordpress will look for new posts, and if there are, it will create copies of them as new posts on your site.

So how do you automate this? Under Syndication in your dashboard go to Feeds & Updates. Under Feeds and Scheduling change the setting from cron job or manual updates to automatically check for updates after pages load:

update-scheduling

What this means is that visits to your site by anyone will keep it updated. Do not worry, it does not check every site on every page load. Feed Wordpress is smart. Savvy. It keeps track of sites in needs to update, and will only bother ones that it has not checked for at least one hour.

This is important to know, because when students publish a new post, it will take up to an hour before your hub will syndicate it.

Cleaning Out Feeds

You may not want to have the demo feeds that came with this blog. Feed Wordpress has some handy options for dealing with feeds you may no longer want to have in the site. When you need to delete or turn off a feed, go to Syndication in the dashboard to see your feeds, hover over the feed you want to edit, and click Unsubscribe.

You have useful powerful, great responsibility options here!

unsubscribe-feed

  • Turn off the subscription for this syndicated link. Use this ot stop looking for new posts from a feed. You might use it at the end of the semester, or just when you know you do not want to get new content from a blog. You can always re-activate it later.
  • Delete this syndicated link and all the posts that were syndicated from it. Use this to get rid of the subscriptions and content for blogs you do not want (like the feeds this blog came with). This is the Big Housecleaner Option.
  • Delete this syndicated link, but keep posts that were syndicated from it (as if they were authored locally). Now this is very powerful. Your students may end up deleting their blogs after a class, or put the blog to other use. This option will stop checking the blog for new posts, and any links in your site that previously went to the external site, will automatically link to a local archived version on your site.

Fixing Bad Feeds

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Any feeds that Feed Wordpress cannot communicate will show up as yellow in your list. There is a "bad feed" in your site now:

bad-feed1

The problem is that the blog site entered https://www.tumblr.com/blog/re-new-media-art is not the public URL or its feed (this is the link a tumblr blog owner copies when they are logged in to their dashboard). The actual public URL for this blog is https://re-new-media-art.tumblr.com/

Your exercise is to see if you can use a Feed Wordpress actions to fix the feed. Then click the Update Feed button and see if you made that yellow stain go away.

Feeds that show up yellow require a bit of detective work to fix. Often the problem is when you try using a blog's category or tag address to syndicate, when you are trying to get only the posts from a category. Feed Wordpress cannot find their RSS feeds, so you have to manually figure it out.

See the Become a Feed Detective section in Feed Wordpress 101 on Feeding the Machine

Working With This Theme

This site uses the free Gridbox magazine theme, chosen for its clean layout and use of featured images. A Wordpress plugin takes care of converting the first image found n a post to be its featured image. If none is found, the "swirl" image is used (an exercise for you is to find where this is done ;-).

You might customize the menus. The front page uses a layout driven by widgets, that you can customize, re-arrange, add things to via Appearance -> Widgets in the section labeled Magazine Widgets.

If you want to promote a post to the "Featured" area, just find it among the posts, and add Featured as a category. The three most recent will show on the home page, but all can be found via the Featured category link.

Code has been added that the random link will redirect you to a randomly chosen Syndicated post. Another page generates a list of all blogs that are syndicated into your site (there must be one syndicated post from a source for it to show up). /

Now go experiment with adding feeds to your site, either form blogs of other workshop participants, other blogs, or any other source that provides RSS feeds.

Once you have set it up, be sure to follow the direction above to turn it on into automatic update mode. Watch that hub grow!


Animated GIF created with Giphy GIF Maker from the YouTube video of How The West Was One (1962 movie trailer)