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RSS for the Real World

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Before you go any further, realize this: RSS is really simple.

—Michael Fagan

It never ceases to amaze me that once we master a certain technology, we so quickly forget that we were once novices at it with a million questions and a certain degree of frustration. We need to remember that the best-designed and most-simple technology wins us over and stays with us forever—remember your first cell phone?

This summer, I received an email from a blog reader, “I really enjoy your blog, but I only read it once a month or so, because most of my blog reading is done with RSS feeds (I mainly use News Gator). Blogs I'm not subscribed to will eventually not get read at all….”

What was he talking about? RSS? News Gator? I had no clue. I thought it was cool enough just to have my own blog! How do I set up RSS? Do I need RSS? Great! More stuff I had to learn… or so I thought.


What Is RSS?

RSS is a “techie” acronym for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary, depending on whom you talk to, the time of day and the day of the week. Also referred to as an RSS feed or XML feed, this protocol is an application of XML that provides an open method of syndicating (or distributing) and aggregating Web content.

RSS is the hottest thing in Web communication, and the beauty of it is that it really is simple. Just like that first cell phone.

RSS is basically a stream of data in its most pure form: content separated from presentation. For instance, RSS feeds syndicate news headlines on some of the largest news sites. It also powers knowledge management networks and Weblogs. Using RSS files, you can supply a data feed of headlines, links and article summaries from your Web site.

RSS feeds are read by a Web-based tool called a news aggregator (such as News Gator)—typically a free download that allows you to view RSS site subscriptions. An RSS feed is produced whenever content is added to the site to which you've subscribed.

Will I Know RSS When I See It?

For the 2% of you who regularly visit blogs (according to Forrester Research), you may notice a small  icon or the words “Syndicate this site (XML).” Such links indicate that the site has an RSS feed that you can subscribe to through your news aggregator or syndicate on your blog or Web site.

Viewing RSS from the Web is not pretty. It looks a bit like bizarre Web code to the uninitiated—you probably wouldn't want to try to read it. Instead, rely on your news aggregator to decipher the code.

How Do I Get RSS on My Site?

Simple. If you use one of the major blog tools such as Blogger or Movable Type, you already have RSS. All you need to do is link your site to the link the blog tool provides for the RSS feed that is automatically created when you publish your blog.

For example, in Blogger, go to Settings and click on the "Site Feed" tab.  There, you will see an option to publish and RSS feed.

If you don't see this option in your blog tool, email your blog's support staff for directions. It really is that simple.

So, What's in It for Me?

There are several advantages to offering an RSS or XML feed on your site or using RSS to get your news and information:

  • There is no such thing as “SPAM RSS.” Your RSS feed is an intravenous link into a user's news aggregator, and nothing can come between the two.

  • RSS feeds allow users to keep up on your site without visiting it every day. Most users visit up to 20 sites a week and no more.

  • You can syndicate your data on other Web sites and news sources without sending them press releases (if your press release section has an RSS feed).

However, every great technology is not without its disadvantages, and RSS has a few:

  • RSS usage and news aggregator adoption is still very limited. Hence, the reach for your RSS feed is currently shallow.

  • RSS is only text. Those great images you put on your site and in your e-newsletters are lost in an RSS feed.

  • There is currently no way to know how many people use your RSS feed and what the open and click-through rates are on RSS syndicated content.

What's in Store for RSS?

RSS has gained quick acceptance in certain circles such as small technology companies, innovative consulting organizations and personal publishers. Yet, it has not gained much traction in the IT departments of most midsize-to-large companies, which are typically slower to adopt up-and-coming technologies like blogs and RSS.

AOL has put RSS technology into its upcoming AOL 10 software, and Microsoft will most likely support RSS in Outlook and Outlook Express, similar to how it supports newsgroup reading. Furthermore, free Web sites like Geocities also offer blog tools with RSS feeds as part of the feature set.

RSS is positioned to become a mainstream content delivery and consumption tool, but first a few things need to happen:

  • Larger technology players and publishers need to adopt RSS as a content sharing and dissemination medium.

  • People need to recognize the benefits of obtaining information via RSS.

  • Companies need to allow employees to install RSS aggregators on their machines.

While RSS may not replace the email newsletter as some have predicted, it will become a formidable force in corporate and personal communication in the very near future.

Links to some useful RSS resources on the Web:

1. RSS Tutorial for Content Publishers and Webmasters

2. Explanation of RSS, How You Can Use It, and Finding RSS Feeds

3. BBC News Site Offers Syndication Feeds

4. Syndicated Content: It's More Than Just Some File Formats

5. New Wave of Newsreader Software Makes Sense of the Web

6. RSS—A Primer for Publishers & Content Providers


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Dana VanDen Heuvel is the New Media Director at Balance Studios, a worldwide firm specializing in animation, interactive development, and broadcast productions for feature film, B-to-B, and commercial clients. You can reach him by email at newmedia@balancestudios.com or phone at 920-433-9770.

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