RSS (most commonly expanded as Really Simple Syndication) is a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated works—such as blog entries, news headlines, audio, and video—in a standardized format. Think of it as a distributable “What’s New” for your site.
Originated by UserLand in 1997 and subsequently used by Netscape to fill channels for Netcenter, RSS has evolved into a popular means of sharing content between sites (including the BBC, CNET, CNN, Disney, Forbes, Motley Fool, Wired, Red Herring, Salon, Slashdot, ZDNet, and more).
An RSS document (which is called a “feed”, “web feed”, or “channel”) includes full or summarized text, plus metadata such as publishing dates and authorship. Web feeds benefit publishers by letting them syndicate content automatically. They benefit readers who want to subscribe to timely updates from favored websites or to aggregate feeds from many sites into one place.
RSS feeds can be read using software called an “RSS reader”, “feed reader”, or “aggregator”, which can be web-based, desktop-based, or mobile-device-based. A standardized XML file format allows the information to be published once and viewed by many different programs. The user subscribes to a feed by entering into the reader the feed’s URI or by clicking an RSS icon in a web browser that initiates the subscription process. The RSS reader checks the user’s subscribed feeds regularly for new work, downloads any updates that it finds, and provides a user interface to monitor and read the feeds.
Aggregators are the most common use of feeds, and there are several types. Web aggregators (sometimes called portals) make this view available in a Web page; my Yahoo is a well-known example of this. Aggregators have also been integrated into e-mail clients, users’ desktops, or standalone, dedicated software. Aggregators can offer a variety of special features, including combining several related feeds into a single view, hiding entries that the viewer has already seen, and categorizing feeds and entries.
Other uses of feeds include site tracking by search engines and other software; because the feed is machine-readable, the search software doesn’t have to figure out which parts of the site are important and which parts are just the navigation and presentation. You may also choose to allow people to republish your feeds on their Web sites, giving them the ability to represent your content as they require.
Why should I make a feed available?
Your viewers will thank you, and there will be more of them, because it allows them to see your site without going out of their way to visit. While this seems bad at first glance, it actually improves your site’s visibility; by making it easier for your users to keep up with your site — allowing them to see it the way they want to — it’s more likely that they’ll know when something that interests them is available on your site.
For example, imagine that your company announces a new product or feature every month or two. Without a feed, your viewers have to remember to come to your site and see if they find anything new — if they have time. If you provide a feed for them, they can point their aggregator or other software at it, and it will give them a link and a description of developments at your site almost as soon as they happen. News is similar; because there are so many sources of news on the Web, most of your viewers won’t come to your site every day.
By providing a feed, you are in front of them constantly, improving the chances that they’ll click through to an article that catches their eye. In many ways, syndication is similar to the subscription newsletters that many sites offer to keep viewers up-to-date. The big difference is that they don’t have to supply an e-mail address, lowering the barrier of privacy concerns, while still giving you a direct channel to your viewers. Also, they get to see the content in the manner that’s most convenient to them, which means that you get more eyes looking at your content.