Please Do Feed The Sites: What Is RSS?

Before I begin this discussion explaining RSS to you as if I were this fount of knowledge that clearly recognized its value from the very first moment I saw it, the fact is that my initial impression after a cursory look-over several years ago was that it was only useful to blogs and news-oriented sites. Outside of syndicating teasers of news headlines and blog posts, not a single aspect of its current usage occurred to me, and I never expected it to become an indispensable part of standard web development or to redefine the web as I knew it. So, if you can forgive me that incredible oversight, then we can get on with this…

RSS as an Update Announcer

To explain what RSS is and why it has everyone so excited, let me just start out on common ground with something we already know, a traditional website. Traditionally, a website like contained whatever content may have been put on it and that content may be static or may change constantly. The problem here has always been that a user had no way of knowing when or if that content had changed other than checking back periodically or being notified by someone.

RSS solved that problem by “announcing” content updates. A site owner creates a special file called an RSS file along with a link to it, and this creates a “web feed.” A web feed is a data format used for sending users content updates. Users have the option of “subscribing” to this feed either through a stand-alone desktop application called a “feed reader,” through an online content aggregator like Newsburst, or, increasingly, directly through their standard web browser. Once subscribed, users are notified whenever there’s new content posted to the feed. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t end there.

RSS Web Feeds

An RSS web feed is actually just an XML-based file that sits on a site like any other file and contains whatever content the site owner wants to put into it for distribution. It can be created and maintained manually or dynamically (preferably the latter.) Part 3 of this series will cover the creation of such feeds. There’s not really a lot to it.

I don’t want to lose you in the terminology or the acronyms here. An XML document–especially of the type we’re talking about here–is an extremely simple text document. The markup has certain similarities to HTML, but where HTML defines how to display the content, XML categorizes the content (for instance, identifying title, description, author, etc.) and does it in a machine-readable format which means that different software on different operating systems on different platforms can easily access and display that content. This is the part that allows for syndication. Numerous applications exist that look for such files, read the content, and parse it back out for use elsewhere.

RSS for Content Syndication

Content syndication is (by definition) the primary use of RSS. Originally, RSS files listed just the title of a piece, the author, the date of publication, a link back to the original content, and a quick summary to act as a kind of teaser to get you to go back to the original site to read the article–hence the mistaken view that it was only good for blog posts and news headlines. Now it includes syndication of full content–including HTML–along with “enclosures” to contain multimedia content like images, audio files, and video files and that content is being used in ever more imaginative ways. This needn’t scare you away from using it.

RSS Content Usage

Primarily, RSS syndicated web content simply turns up in some form of RSS reader for the usage of an individual who wants to remain informed of content updates on your site. However, this syndication of content along with the inherent extensibility of XML allows for a kind of web presence and sharing of content that was never available before. It’s the underlying workhorse or building block of the entire “Web 2.0” movement.

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