Jan 252009

FeedBurner, Google, And The 502 / 503 Error

feedburner-logoLast week we transferred our FeedBurner account to Google and encountered some hiccups.

Here is Google's FAQ on this migration, and here is an extremely helpful Google page providing known bugs and workarounds.

Q: What Feedburner bug did RKGblog encounter?

A: We got 502 and 503 errors on our primary RSS url, feeds.rimmkaufman.com/rkgblog. We use a FeedBurner (FB) service called MyBrand to preserve our domain in our feed URL. If you are not using MyBrand (you should be), then migrating from old FB to the new Google account is just pushing one button. If you are using MyBrand, you also have to follow the instructions on this page on adding a CNAME so FB has DNS authority to serve that subdomain for you.

The bug is that the feedburner.google.com/fb/a/mybrand page doesn't work as you'd expect. To make it to work, you first need to hit the deactivate button, then hit activate. Deactivation is the magic step. Be sure to note your feed-specific domain name(s) before deactivating, as doing so will clear the text field. Once you 'deactivate' and 'reactivate', add the CNAME as per the instructions, wait for the DNS to propagate, and flush your local DNS cache, all should be working.

Q: Why use FeedBurner at all?

A: I can think of eight reasons to use FB for RSS.

  • SmartFeed. This sends the right flavor of RSS based on the requester's user agent string.
    • Is this still relevant in 2009? Unsure.
  • BuzzBoost. This is a Recent Posts widget.
    • Nice, but we've seen homepage loading delays because of this. We'll be replacing the FB widget on our homepage with a static include, generated hourly by a trivial cron script.
  • Bandwidth. FB fetches RSS from your site when pinged, then FB handles all the requests for your feed from the outside world. Free bandwidth.
    • Nice. Thanks, Google.
  • Adserving. You can use Feedburner/AdSense to insert ads into your feeds.
    • We don't put ads in our RSS. Thus, not relevant to us.
  • FeedBulletin. Provides a RSS feed on the fetch health of your feed.
    • Useful. We could use our Nagios system to monitor our feed availability, but FeedBulletin/FeedMedic is already there.
  • Site analytics. FB used to provide very nice site analytics for blogs. They just dropped those in favor of Google Analytics.
    • Sigh. I found the FB data, presentation, and UI far better than the GA replacement. I miss those clickable french fry charts.
  • Email. Feedburner can maintain an email list of people wishing read your RSS via email.
    • Useful and appreciated. Be aware that migrating this list elsewhere could be difficult, as discussed here.
  • Subscriber counts. This was FB's strength, imho. FB grabbed subscriber data from the user agent strings of the various 'bots taking its feeds, then aggregated subscription and reach counts for each publisher, time period, and feed item. Rick Klau discussed FB data collection here. Note FB counts can be manipulated.
    • While some suggest weak methods to approximate FB stats, I don't know of any good alternative to FB for subscriber and reach data. Unfortunately, FB's counts have been fluctuating wildly recently, causing some to question their usefulness.

Q: Why MyBrand? Why serve RSS from your own domain?

A: FB says MyBrand "allows publishers to showcase their feeds by serving them from their own domain." While there may be slight branding benefit here, the key issue is transportability. If your subscribers are signed up through a FB url, you can't easily change that without losing subscribers. By having your feed URL on your own domain, you can move on and off FB (or anywhere) as needed.

Every company with a blog or a RSS feed should ensure that their feed URL is on their own domain. No exceptions.

For example, RKGblog lives at feeds.rimmkaufman.com/rkgblog. That looks like our servers, but we've delegated the feeds-dot subdomain to FB by setting a CNAME on our DNS machines. Requests for that URL go to FB servers, which return our cached content and tally our stats. You can see this by pinging feeds.rimmkaufman.com: the response comes back from ghs.l.google.com.

If we wanted, we could direct that URL back to our Wordpress RSS URL, taking FB out of the loop. Our subscribers wouldn't notice any change.

Q: Do all Feedburner publishers have to migrate from old FeedBurner to the new Google-login Feedburner?

A: Yes. The switch is mandatory by Feb 28, 2009.

Q: Are RKGblog's Feedburner subscriber and reach counts still fluctuating? Are they still half their prior levels?

A: As of 1/26/09, yes to both.

Q: Are there any good alternatives to Feedburner?

A: I don't know of any myself, but I'm not a RSS expert. Please comment below with suggestions. I'm especially interested in alternative feed analytics options.

Q: What is the DNS cache, and how does one flush it?

A: DNS maps names like 'www.rimmkaufman.com' to IP address like ''. Your local machine keeps a cache to save time. When working with DNS, you need to clear your cache to see your changes immediately. To dump the DNS cache on a windows box, pull up a DOS window (Start > Run > cmd) and enter 'net stop dnscache' then enter 'net start dnscache'. On a linux box, use '/etc/init.d/nscd restart'.

Update 1/30/09

FB seems to be working fine. Our feeds appear stable. Reach and subs counts are still half their early January levels. Suspect the halving will be the new normal.


7 Responses to "FeedBurner, Google, And The 502 / 503 Error"
TheOtherShoe says:
Hi Alan, nice and informative post. I also strongly agree with you advice regarding MyBrand. This is critical. However so many people will put this off due to it being a technical challenge for some. I think it is critical that no one using FB hesitate in this regards. For those who don't aren't yet using MyBrand and feel it may be a frustrating for them, I recommend they take a look at a website that is dedicated to making the use of MyBrand extremely trivial. The URL is FeedPhoenix.com (Get it?... Phoenix - The bird that rises from the ashes after getting burned, or in this case feed-burned)
Hi TheOtherShoe- Yes, I saw your comment on Mashable promoting FeedPhoenix and checked it out. Perhaps I missed something, but the website looked like it was one page, has a typo in the first sentence, provided no contact info, gave no indication of who is behind the service, and offered no privacy policy. To me, those are red flags. The FP page also indicated that the feed URL would end up something like http://your-feed-name.feedphoenix.com/your-feed-name. I could be reading it wrong, but that sounds to me at least as exactly the same problem as keeping your feed URL in the FB domain. Feel free to correct me if I misread. If you're involved with FeedPhoenix.com, perhaps you could suggest to the siteowners that FP would benefit by providing an About Us page, terms of service, a privacy policy, testimonials, tech specs, etc. We' be happy to get the word to our readers about decent alternatives to FB. Odds are, we're going to hunker down for a bit and wait. We are very likely to end up staying with FB (though dropping their BuzzBoost widget) because I'm confident Google will fix all the current problems. My beef with them is that the release seemed uncharacteristically rough and rushed for them. Many thanks for the comment -- Alan
Rick Klau says:
Hi Alan - The FeedBurner team has a new blog up to address status issues, in particular focused on the transition to Google's infrastructure. On the 502 issue specifically, there's a post that walks through a few specifics: http://feedburnerstatus.blogspot.com/2009/01/http-502-error-code-received-on-some.html Hope that helps. --Rick
Many thanks for checking in and commenting, Rick! No doubt the hiccups will resolve soon. I know this likely isn't your area anymore, but do you any have comments or official G links responding to the myriad "my counts have all been cut by 50%!" comments bouncing around the blogosphere? Again thanks, and have a great Monday -- Alan
Rick Klau says:
Alan - you're right, it's not my area any more (I'm now the Business Product Manager on Blogger) but I'll see what I can find out.
Phil Hollows says:
Hi Alan: FYI FeedBlitz just launched an RSS service; please see http://feedblitz.blogspot.com/2009/03/feedburner-alternative-blitz-your-rss.html Thanks! Phil Hollows Founder FeedBlitz, LLC.
Note that these are not hyperlinks; these URIs are used for identification. This is a machine-readable way to say “this is HTML”.

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