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What Is RSS, and Why Should You Care?

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Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the CONTENTIOUS blog. It is republished with permission.

Several readers have asked me by email and via blog comments, "Amy, what is this RSS stuff you keep talking about? What's so cool or important about it"

Here are the basics.

RSS stands for Rich Site Summary (or Really Simple Syndication, take your pick). In a nutshell, RSS is a new way for people who publish content online to notify people interested in that content whenever fresh content is made available online.

By notifying people interested in your content, as well as Web sites that collect and package content announcements (called aggregators), you are "feeding" them your content—hence the term "RSS feed."


Why RSS Is Better Than Email Announcements

Just about everyone who publishes content online has some sort of email announcement list. I do, too. Still, RSS is a great complement to email announcements because it doesn't clutter people's inboxes, it's easier to manage for recipients who get a lot of news online, it's spam-proof and it's easier to manage than an email list.

While not a lot of people know about RSS right now, it's getting popular quickly. I wouldn't be surprised if in the next couple of years RSS becomes as widely known and used as the Web and email.

What RSS Does

RSS is both a publication and a syndication channel. The basic concept is very similar to how newswire services work:

• RSS-feed recipients can peruse the latest headlines to see what's happening and can click embedded links to get the full story.

• Often, feed recipients also can republish all or part of an RSS feed on their own sites. Ever wonder where all that fresh content in Google News comes from? RSS feeds! That's a big reason why RSS is so powerful and valuable for online publishers. If you want your content to really get seen, you MUST offer a feed!

What RSS Is (Bare-Bones Geeky Stuff)

An RSS feed is a particular kind of XML file that contains information about your new content (headline, description, excerpt, anything you care to specify). Here's what my feed looks like. Yes, these files look very ugly. But don't let that scare you, you don't have to make sense of a feed—your computer does.

You Need a Feed Reader

To make use of RSS feeds, you must install special feed reader software (also called a "news reader") to display RSS feeds in a format that the average human can read, understand and use. This is just like how Web browsers interpret and display HTML and other types of code and files.

My favorite feed reader is Feed Demon (free, still in beta, Windows only), but Amphetadesk is also free and good. NetNewswire is also good (Windows and Mac, $39.95). NewsGator is another great feed reader; it integrates into MS Outlook and allows you to simply right-click on the button or link to a feed to get a drop-down menu with a “subscribe in NewsGator" option (no need to view the ugly XML code). And there are many, many other programs.

Bloglines is a free Web-based service through which you can set up your own personal feed reader account. It's an especially easy way to start using RSS feeds, and doesn't require that you install new software—but there are some considerations you should be aware of before you start to use it.

Using RSS

When you subscribe to a feed, you tell your feed reader that you want it to periodically poll a certain site's RSS feed file. To do this, just click on the cryptic little button that says something like "XML" or "RSS" that you see on so many sites today. That will take you to the ugly feed file. Then, simply grab the URL for that page and plug it into your feed reader. It's somewhat similar to bookmarking a page in your Web browser.

Then, when you want to read the news, you tell your feed reader to go out to the feeds you've subscribed to and grab their latest information. Then, your feed reader displays that information in a way that's similar to what you see on Google News: a list of the latest headlines from each source, sorted however you prefer, sometimes with brief descriptions of the content, and always with a link to the full content on the publisher's site.

RSS Circumvents Spam

Again, this process is spam-proof! That's the main reason why I'm an RSS evangelist.

Only the feed publisher can designate what information gets into the feed, and the only information the subscriber pulls down is what the publisher puts there. When you subscribe to an RSS feed, you're not giving your email address to anyone, and they can't send you stuff you don't want.

This is a huge deal, especially for people who publish or subscribe to email announcement services. Spam has become so pervasive that up to 38% of all opt-in email messages (stuff that people have specifically asked to receive) get blocked by spam filters. (My colleague Steve Outing wrote an excellent Editor & Publisher article on this problem last August.

Publishing a Feed

Lots of programs are now available that automatically create and update RSS feeds. These are stand-alone or built into blogging or content management software. I use the RSS template built into my blogging software, Movable Type.

To learn more about publishing an RSS feed, here's a great RSS primer for publishers and content providers.

Versatility

One of the coolest, and underutilized, strengths of RSS is that you can create a feed to make any kind of announcement. Its potential expands far beyond announcing news articles, commentary and blog items.

And it's probably even more useful for very specialized or localized content than it is for content that you want everyone in the world to see. I covered that in this recent CONTENTIOUS post, which attracted some very intriguing comments (be sure to read them!)

If you haven't yet tried RSS, download a feed reader and start exploring and experimenting. I'll definitely be writing more on this topic later, including listing resources and pointing to interesting RSS examples.


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Amy Gahran is an editorial consultant, journalist and writing trainer/coach based in Boulder, Colorado. She helps people and organizations communicate effectively online and in print. For more info, see gahran.com. She also publishes the CONTENTIOUS blog, which offers news and musings on how we communicate in the online age.

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