What is RSS?

Category: Software

I keep hearing about RSS, XML and RSS feeds. I have only a vague idea of what they are, but then people start talking about RSS aggregators, and I get really confused. What are they talking about and why would I want one? Should I use an aggregator, and if so, which one?

Ain't jargon fun? This reminds me of the time I was attending a meeting at IBM and the vice president of our division said "I just found out what a paradigm is... and now I need a new one!" RSS is an acronym for Rich Site Summary (or Really Simple Syndication), and is a means of distributing (or syndicating) news headlines on the Web.

Why is that interesting? Because this allows programs to track this specially formatted data stream and let you know when there's new material added to a website of interest to you. It's also a cool way to track just the information you want to keep tabs on, and pull it off the web without spam getting in the way. This site, and others that offer RSS feeds, have buttons like these which let you add the feed to the list of sites you wish to track.


My friend Dave Taylor, who runs the Ask Dave Taylor website (which of course is RSS-enabled) explains below how this all works, why you should care about RSS, and how to get started.

Let's start with an example. I track a number of different business newswires and was reading about the Proctor & Gamble acquisition of Gillette at least a day prior to my colleagues. How do I know that? Because they've told me that it was my own article on the subject (P&G buys Gillette for $57 billion) that alerted them to the $54 billion transaction).

Helpful Hint: If you'd like to track an RSS feed and you have a browser with RSS support, just click on one of those cute little RSS or XML buttons. If your browser doesn't know what to do with that and instead shows you a cryptic page of text, you'll need an RSS reader or aggregator. Keep reading, but remember that you can also "right click" (or Ctrl-click for you Mac folks) and copy the link address to your buffer, then paste it into a 'subscribe' field in your reader.

The problem is, I don't want to check 100 RSS feeds any more than I want to visit 100 Web sites every day, and that's where aggregators come in. Whether they're standalone programs, plug-ins for your favorite Web browser or email program, or Web-based services, RSS aggregators remember your subscription list, check each site on a periodic basis, and alert you to any new articles that have been published.

If you're not thinking "wow, very cool" then you are spending too much time visiting Web sites! To scan the headlines of just a dozen sites on an hourly basis would probably be a full time job and if you need to keep abreast of your industry, as I do, then you wouldn't have any time to actually do anything, which would obviously be deleterious to your career long-term! :-)

So there are programs you can download that are RSS aggregators (or RSS readers, basically synonymous) for Windows, Mac and Linux/Unix systems. A few of the most popular are FeedReader for Windows, NetNewsWire and NewsFire for Macintosh and Lifera for Linux.

Finally, you can subscribe to an RSS aggregator Web service which gives you a custom Web page that includes the newest information from your hand-picked RSS feeds. The highest profile solution to this is My Yahoo, which recently announced support for RSS feeds as additional personal home page information sources, though it just shows you a rolling 'latest five articles' from each source, so it doesn't work for me because I'd still be left trying to remember which I'd read or not. Other possibilities include AmphetaDesk, or Bloglines.

Whichever solution you choose, I promise you that once you start traveling down the road of RSS feeds and RSS aggregators, you won't turn back. In fact, you'll find that every time you go to a Web site that you like, you'll immediately start hunting for that "RSS" or "XML" button. I certainly do, and I'm more plugged in now than I could ever have been in the past. It's a rolling sea of information out there, and an RSS aggregator gives you a sail and GPS navigation system. It might just save your life out there!

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Most recent comments on "What is RSS?"

Posted by:

27 Sep 2005

You wrote:
> It's also a cool way to track just the
> information you want to keep tabs on, and pull
> it off the web without spam getting in the way.

Well it would be if they hadn't started inserting text ads into the RSS streams. See Scientific American RSS for one example.
Feedburner will insert the ads into the RSS streams they generate. They are selling very targeted, self-selected ad space to advertisers. What we need now is an RSS reader that can remove text ads. Like we have browsers that remove ads from web sites.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Bill, you bite the hand that feeds you, and misconstrue the concept of spam. If you agree to receive a FREE ad-sponsored publication, then you can't claim that the sponsor messages are spam. And by stripping out the ads, you show disregard for the publisher who works to bring you that FREE resource at their own expense. Bottom line, tolerate the ads or toll booths on the Internet will become the norm.

Posted by:

27 Sep 2005

My greatest hesitation about starting in on RSS feeds is that I can't find any examples of what they look like; I imagine they resemble the news headline "zipper" in Times Square or running above the windows of the "Good Morning America" and "Today" show studios. Can you point me to examples of what RSS feeds looke like?

EDITOR'S NOTE: That's the beauty of RSS. It's just a datafeed, so a program can render it in a variety of ways. For example, the AskBobRankin feed is displayed on the TOURBUS home page, just under the green subscription box. You can also add RSS feeds to your "My Yahoo" page, where they will show up just like the other headlines from Reuters, etc.

Posted by:

27 Sep 2005

I notice you don't mention the rather wonderful Opera browser in your article. Opera (which is now free, of course) can happily read any number of feeds via its built-in reader. I'm an RSS fiend but I am also loathe to clutter up my computer with extra software that takes up unnecessary resources. It's a good compromise.

Posted by:

Dana Lewis (Yoko Trading)
02 Oct 2005

Glad to see you talking about this.I fell in love with RSS and added a syndicated blog (using b2evo) on our commercial site. Within a couple months I was getting extreme bandwidth waste (costing me $) due to BLAM (blog comment spam) so have shut down the blog/RSS. Can you address this topic? I did try one .htaccess fix but it wouldn't work with other .htaccess configs I have in place. The idea of users being in control of what they draw down from sites appeals to me as a merchant. RSS is a non-intrusive way to communicate with my opt-in clients. If all my opt-in members had aggregators I'd not need to send out any email newsletters!So...can you address this, as I've seen a number of sites discontinue their blogs due to blam.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Comment spam can be a huge problem, especially the automated variety. I manage the problem by requiring manual approval of each comment. When someone posts a comment, it comes to me first. Unless I approve it, the comment will not be posted. This is a feature built into Moveable Type (which powers my blogs) and other content management systems as well.

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Article information: AskBobRankin -- What is RSS? (Posted: 23 Sep 2005)
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