RSS Intro for Webmasters

Posted On 2007-07-22 by FortyPoundHead
Tags: Webmaster Related Tutorial 
Views: 1614

Remember the ill-fated push for `push` content which occurred around the time Microsoft introduced Internet Explorer version 4? Companies such as PointCast made a big splash for a while, offering to feed channels of information directly to our desktops. Unlike browsing, where you had to venture out onto the Net to find what you were interested in, push technology brought the stuff you were interested in right to your door, in the form of news headlines and stock market quotes and other types of information.

RSS is push, too. Or, rather, it`s pull. Push implies the publisher knows who you are (a `subscriber`) and sends information to you; with pull, you know who the publisher is but they don`t necessarily know you, a very important distinction in these days of spamming. There`s no need to hand over information about yourself; instead, with an RSS reader on your computer, you go out searching for sites which offer RSS `feeds`, plug the appropriate address into your RSS reader and, from that moment on, have content delivered to your desktop as soon as it is updated.

RSS can also be used for subscription-based services and, as such, it offers online publishers a solution to the problem of having their ezines classified as junk mail by overzealous spam filters. Most RSS feeds these days, though, are demand-side services: you, the user, initiate and control the contact.

RSS succeeds where the original push failed because it is simple, lightweight and because control remains with the user.

RSS and blogging

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. Or Rich Site Summary. Or RDF (Resource Description Framework) Site Summary. It all depends who you ask.

Really Simple Syndication is probably the best description of RSS in action. RSS is a way for one site to allow publication of some of its content on other sites very much in the way some newspaper columnists have their articles syndicated across national or international publications. RSS lets anybody with a smattering of HTML skill syndicate the content on their site, content which may be in the form of news feeds, event listings, headlines, discussion summaries, newsletter articles and so on.

RSS was originally developed by Netscape programmers in the late 1990s, but it`s only in the past year that its popularity has begun to blossom, riding the blogging wave.

`Blog` is short for weblog. If you`ve missed the phenomenon, blogs are the self-published journals which have popped up all over the Web, mostly on personal sites but also gaining prominence on very public sites. In the US presidential race, for example, the early front-running Democrat candidate, Howard Dean, grabbed attention and a lot of followers via his Blog For America.

RSS lets bloggers, amongst others, get their words out to a broader audience.

The promise of RSS

You may be thinking RSS sounds like yet another way to overload yourself with information. Its proponents argue the contrary: that RSS lets you focus and funnel the information you receive.

RSS content comes to your desktop in the form of feeds. Feeds consist of brief summary `headlines` organised into content categories or channels. Whenever you see a headline which piques your interest, you click it to view the full story in your browser.

The better RSS readers provide tools for winnowing out content which is of no interest (filters) and highlighting items you may really wish to read (watch lists). By doing this, they help reduce the time you spend digging for information and news. In fact, if you spend some time tweaking your RSS reader, you`re likely to find yourself spending a lot less time on the Web or elsewhere, scanning for information.

RSS vs. Atom

In the computer world, it seems you can`t have a technology without a competing technology, and RSS is no exception. Its main rival is the Atom syndication format.

Atom is the result of dissatisfaction with RSS`s genesis, more than with its form. RSS, you see, is not an open standard. Instead, it`s controlled by its authors, although it sports a Creative Commons licence. Atom, developed by IBM, is open source. Yahoo! has embraced RSS feeds; Google, through its Blogger software, has opted for Atom.

In fact, it gets even messier. There are three `strands` of RSS, RSS .9x, 1.x and 2.x, each incompatible with the other. Mark Pilgrim points out in his blog that those three strands contain nine incompatible versions of RSS.

Does it matter? Not really. As a user, your best course of action is to keep your head down and get yourself a multi-format reader which handles multiple forms of RSS and Atom. There are plenty of them available.

Join the feeding frenzy

All you need to get in on the RSS act is a feed reader, also known as a news aggregator. There are a dozen or more available, some of them freeware, some of them shareware.

I recommend you start by using one of the more sophisticated readers, even if that means opting for shareware over freeware. My pick is FeedDemon, created by Nick Bradbury a bloke who doesn`t know how to make anything but ultra-elegant software (he also authored HomeSite and TopStyle). The advanced features in FeedDemon make it easy to set up and control and it will give you a feel for all the possibilities of RSS. You can try it for free for 30 days. After that time, you`ll know more about how feeds work and be ready to switch to a less feature-laden freeware reader, or you may choose to stick with FeedDemon or a similar product.

If you`re a fan of the Opera browser, there`s an alternative to getting a dedicated feed reader. Opera 7.5 provides integrated support for RSS feeds. As soon as you hit a site containing an RSS feed (feeds are usually identified by a small orange button labelled RSS or XML) click the RSS button and Opera will display the feed in a separate two-paned window, with the news items listed at the top, and item content displayed at the bottom.

Reading RSS feeds in Opera is educational, because the actual HTML/RSS code is displayed on a tab in the background, while the correctly formatted RSS content appears on a foreground tab.

About the Author

FortyPoundHead has posted a total of 1974 articles.

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