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RSS Overview

By Rob Pirozzi

Many may have noticed little graphic images and links on web sites that say "RSS" or "XML". At first they were easy to skim past, but as they are now becoming much more pervasive you may be starting to wonder what they are. This article will provide you with a brief overview of RSS, and the uses of RSS.

RSS Defined

Depending on who you ask, RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, or Rich Site Summary, or RDF (Resource Description Framework) Site Summary. RSS files are text-based files, in XML (extensible markup language - which looks similar to HTML) format that is simply a list of items. Items, in their most basic form, typically consist of a title, summary, and a link (URL) to a web page. RSS files may also be referred to as RSS feeds or RSS channels. While there is no common file extension for RSS files, they most typically end in .xml, .rss, or .rdf.

What is RSS Used For?

RSS for Syndication of Content

RSS feeds are an easy way for a web site publisher to publish or syndicate their information to make it easily consumable by the public at large. A web site publisher creates one or more feeds or channels, each of which is typically organized around a single topic or category. The publisher updates each feed as new material becomes available. RSS feeds work well for web sites that publish articles, white papers, communiques, press releases, and newsletters. In general, any content that is published or updated frequently can be offered through an RSS feed. One can think of an RSS feed as a constantly updating news wire.

RSS for Consuming Content

End-User Use of RSS

End-users are consumers of RSS content. End-users subscribe to RSS feeds using RSS readers or RSS aggregators (more on that later). This enables them to aggregate, or bring together, information that is of interest to them. As RSS feeds change, new information simply appears in the end-user's reader. So instead of having to go to multiple web sites to get the information, the information is brought to them and and updated through the reader.

Web Publisher Use of RSS

Web publishers are also consumers of RSS content. An RSS feed is a great way for a web-site publisher to add relevant and constantly updated content to their own web site. The RSS feed appears on web pages within a web publishers' web site as a list in the form of headline or title followed by a synopsis of the content. When an end-user clicks on an item in the feed they are taken to the full article.

RSS Readers or Aggregators

As has already been mentioned, end-users use what is referred to as an RSS reader or an RSS aggregator to subscribe to and read RSS content. Readers or aggregators come in one of many forms:

  • RSS aggregator web service - Many web services providers offer RSS aggregator services. "MYYAHOO!" is a good example of a web-based aggregation/RSS reader service. Google provides the "Google Reader". There are many others that provide a similar service.
  • RSS built-in, extensions, and plugins - Many web browsers either have RSS capabilities, or browser extensions or plugins for RSS. Mozilla Thunderbird also has built-in RSS capabilities.
  • Desktop, or stand-alone RSS aggregators - Desktop or standalone RSS aggregators are software applications that get installed on your PC. Their function is to help you subscribe to, organize RSS, and read feeds.

RSS Versions

To make life a little more confusing, there are different versions of RSS. They are:

  • RSS 0.90 by Netscape, now considered obsoleted by 1.0
  • RSS 1.0 by RSS-DEV
  • RSS 0.9x by UserLand Software, now considered obsoleted by 2.0
  • RSS 2.0 by UserLand Software

From an end-user stand-point the version used turns out to not make too much difference. Most readers and aggregators understand all of the versions. An end-user simply needs to be aware and make sure that they are selecting a multi-version reader.

Web publishers also need to be aware and make use of either RSS 1.0 or RSS 2.0.

Atom, A Competing Standard

To make matters even more confusing, a competing standard called Atom was created by individuals who felt that RSS could be improved upon. It was subsequently adopted by the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force). Atom 1.0 is similar to RSS in format, but somewhat more complex, and able to carry more complex information.

Again, this does not typically present much of an issue for end-users. Most readers/aggregators that can deal with RSS, can also handle Atom. Web site publishers will have to select between RSS and Atom.

Why is RSS Important?

RSS feeds give end users an easy way to organize and consume information. They can set-up their reader or aggregator to provide them with feeds of information that they find useful. The information is updated automatically as the publishers of the feeds update their feeds. In essence, end-users create their own, self-updating, periodical. This saves them from having to visit many different and disparate web sites.

For web publishers, RSS is beneficial on many different fronts:

  • RSS gives publishers a means of substantially expanding the distribution and potential audience for their content.
  • RSS can drive significant traffic to a publisher's web site. People read the headlines and synopsis of the publisher's content somewhere else, and then follow the link back to the publisher's web site to read the entire article.
  • RSS can help a publisher with their search engine optimization (SEO) efforts. When others "pick-up" a publisher's RSS feed and incorporate it into their own web site, they are increasing the number of links back to the publisher's web site. This proliferation of links will help with a site's search-engine ranking, ultimately driving even more traffic to their site.

RSS is a technology with many benefits for both end-users and publishers alike, which would explain why its use is expanding so rapidly.

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