A Real Simple SOBs Guide to Real Simple Syndication

February 1, 2007 by Staff Writer

For a good while it seemed that every website I visited had a little orange ‘RSS’ tag visible in a key location. Every time I saw one, the same questions came to mind… What is RSS? What is RSS for? How do you use RSS? With a little internal voice continually nagging me, my curiosity intensified and when snippets of articles I came across on the Internet suggested that RSS was the next big thing, or was the current big thing, or potentially, even the Internet’s future salvation, I just couldn’t hold on any longer. I launched into an investigation – a one-man crusade against total ignorance of a topic! Here are the results, hopefully pulled together with enough cohesion to be comprehensible and with any luck valuable to people who don’t really know anything about RSS. So here goes…

What is RSS?

The first thing I found out about RSS was that it means ‘Real Simple Syndication’. The second thing that I found out was that RSS also means ‘Rich Site Summary’ and ‘RDF Site Summary’. Although the former term is now more widely accepted, it quickly became clear that some people used one while others used the others. No problem here – each to their own… I guess.

Further investigation uncovered that there are 8 versions of RSS (in fact there is some debate as to whether there are 8 or 9), a rival (but very similar) format called Atom, and not all little orange tags show RSS - some show RDF and others XML. Not really being a technophile, this is usually the point I give up – so many versions, differences and nuances – forget it! However, my curiosity had steeled into a fiery determination to get to the bottom of it all. Avoiding finite dissemination of RSS, Atom, etc., I resigned myself to a practical answer to my first question. What is RSS? Well, whatever it is, there are plenty of different versions and they all do pretty much the same thing in that you can use them in pretty much the same way. That done, it led nicely to the next question: What is RSS for?

What is RSS for?

The term ‘Real Simple Syndication’ and a look at another medium help out considerably here. There are many thousands of newspapers across the planet – some large with masses of resources, others small with few. How do the smaller newspapers fill their pages? Simple; they acquire syndicated content. They may acquire a story from a larger newspaper, or a news item from an organization like Reuters or Associated Press, or even syndicated cartoons from a world famous cartoonist.

On the Internet, there are some websites that are content rich, others that are in need of content. The content rich sites often syndicate their content using RSS (or XML, or Atom, etc.) feeds for other websites to utilize for other sites to use. Anything can be driven through RSS – the items in blogs and personal pages, online scientific journals, travel websites – in fact anything that offers discrete items of any nature can syndicate their content and see it appear on other sites using RSS. Why do they do that? Well, if people put your content on their site they usually put a link to identify the source which not only provides an online advert for your site it can drive visitors there, too. Such links also help you with search engines such as Google – the more external links to a site the more the Google God likes it and your Search Engine Results Position (SERPs) can increase.

This is probably the most traditional explanation of what RSS is for, however, it has some more uses that even people without websites can benefit from. Let’s say you have 20 favorite websites - 5 update daily (different times of the day), 5 weekly (different days of the week), 5 monthly (different days of the month) and 5 when the webmaster feels like it – could be every day for a while, or perhaps the site will go without new content for many months. How do you keep track of them all? Well, you can use a client called an RSS Reader. What an RSS Reader does is visit the site of your choice, check whether any content changes have taken place, and if so, create a link to any new content. It tells all of this through the sites RSS link(s). As you can imagine, people into blogs (weblogs) find RSS pretty useful, and as a result, most blog sites offer an RSS feed. Again, RSS Readers provide links to the content they find and ultimately this means people hopping over to a site to see the full story.

OK – honeymoon over… We have looked at one use of RSS – bringing content into a website. But we have also looked at how a much bigger group of people can benefit from RSS –regular surfers who want to keep track of the information they want or need. We are first going to cater for this group and then we are going to look at ways of adding RSS to a website.

Using RSS to Keep Track of Website Content

As I mentioned before, if you want to keep track of website content using RSS, you will need an RSS aggregator. Luckily, there are gazillions of them freely available – a search on Google for ‘free download RSS reader’ brings up 47,100,000 items, although of course, not all linking to free software. Two readers I found and thought pretty snazzy, Tristan Reader, and FeedReader. Both are pretty similar and free. Actually, the big boys are also into readers - www.google.com/reader and http://news.yahoo.com/rss.

Once you have set up the software, you can then start hunting for RSS feeds. As news changes on a daily basis, websites where news can be found are popular venues for RSS. Look at this screen shot of news.google.com:

You can easily see text showing you where the RSS feed for this site is. However, as mentioned before, a site’s RSS feed make look like this:

And here’s what an ATOM feed might look like:

Luckily, most RSS Readers accept ATOM feeds and the procedure to harness a link is the same. Move your cursor over the text or button and right click. Your RSS Reader may have added ‘Add Feed to …’ and the name of your client in the usual right click menu items, (Open, Open in New Window, etc.). If it has, click on this and that’s it – go back to your RSS Reader and click on ‘Add’ if you have to. You will see a new ‘Channel’ has opened and it will probably have generated some items. It should look something like this:

image3

If not, click on ‘Copy Shortcut’, go back to your RSS Reader and click on ‘Add a Content Channel’ or similar. Then simply paste the shortcut into the RS Reader and click on ‘Add’. In both instances, the RSS Reader will add content from the site you visited and when the content changes, the list of available items in your reader will change, too. Depending on your RSS Reader, you might get a notification of the change.

The RSS Reader was at once a revelation and a disappointment for me. The immediate ‘eureka’ factor of being able to control all this information was pretty inspiring. The practical side of taking in all of that information, regardless of whether it was all in one place, however well managed and easily accessible, I found a bit overwhelming. Used judiciously though, using an RSS Reader could put the world at your fingertips.

So, that’s how to control content of websites using RSS, but how does it get there?

Adding RSS Feeds to a Website

As I said earlier, I am not exactly a technophile, so for me adding an RSS Feed to a website might not necessarily be as straightforward as it could be for others. As a result I have tried to dumb things down a bit so someone with the same TIQ (Technical Intelligence Quota) as me could manage it. Hope I achieve my aim!

In creating an RSS Feed you are essentially creating a file which links to a number of items on your website. Each item you want to push through your RSS Feed must have its own URL and you can only put 15 items in a single RSS Feed. Each item must have three key items:

1) title
2) description, and
3) link

Let’s try to set up an RSS feed for HostSearch.com’s articles section and see how we go. The articles section is here:

http://www.hostsearch.com/articles/default.asp

Let’s consider a few articles:

Making Money from your Web Site
Listen to your Stats!

and

Writing Copy for SEO Purposes

Let’s look at the first article – the title is already there:

“Making Money from your Web Site”

Here’s the Description:

You’ve created a great site with lots of great content and you have chosen your web host. So… big question… what’s next? Unless you are especially altruistic (and if you search the web, you’ll be surprised to see just how many people are), you’ll probably want to make some money out of your efforts. But how do you turn this stream of dots on a screen into a revenue stream? Here are a few pragmatic tips that might help… basic steps that will get you started and (hopefully) start you thinking.

And here is the link: http://www.hostsearch.com/articles/2006/OCT/
making_money_from_your_web_sit_35_0.asp

You have to add a few ‘tags’ to enable RSS Feeds to read this information. The title should look like this:

<title>Making Money from your Web Site</title>

The description like this:

<description> You’ve created a great site with lots of great content and you have chosen your web host. So… big question… what’s next? Unless you are especially altruistic (and if you search the web, you’ll be surprised to see just how many people are), you’ll probably want to make some money out of your efforts. But how do you turn this stream of dots on a screen into a revenue stream? Here are a few pragmatic tips that might help… basic steps that will get you started and (hopefully) start you thinking. </description>

And the link like this:

<link> http://www.hostsearch.com/articles/2006/OCT/
making_money_from_your_web_sit_35_0.asp
 
</link>

So that readers know this is one of the items you want to push through your RSS Feed, you have to show it as an item, like this:

<item>
<title> Making Money from your Web Site </title>
<description> You’ve created a great site with lots of great content and you have chosen your web host. So… big question… what’s next? Unless you are especially altruistic (and if you search the web, you’ll be surprised to see just how many people are), you’ll probably want to make some money out of your efforts. But how do you turn this stream of dots on a screen into a revenue stream? Here are a few pragmatic tips that might help… basic steps that will get you started and (hopefully) start you thinking. </description>
<link> http://www.hostsearch.com/articles/2006/OCT/
making_money_from_your_web_sit_35_0.asp
 </link>
</item>

Now we have the basic structure, we can add the other articles to the feed:

<item>
<title> Making Money from your Web Site </title>
<description> You’ve created a great site with lots of great content and you have chosen your web host. So… big question… what’s next? Unless you are especially altruistic (and if you search the web, you’ll be surprised to see just how many people are), you’ll probably want to make some money out of your efforts. But how do you turn this stream of dots on a screen into a revenue stream? Here are a few pragmatic tips that might help… basic steps that will get you started and (hopefully) start you thinking. </description>
<link> http://www.hostsearch.com/articles/2006/OCT/
making_money_from_your_web_sit_35_0.asp
 </link>
</item>

<item>
<title>Listen to your Stats!</title>
<description> It never ceases to amaze me that webmasters, sometimes fairly experienced ones too, never listen to what their site stats are telling them! In this article I aim to show that even the most basic site statistic technologies offer you a unique ability to not only establish how many people are visiting your site, but to drive quality traffic to your pages.
</description>
<link>http://www.hostsearch.com/articles/2006/OCT/
listen_to_your_stats!_49_0.asp</link>
</item>

<item>
<title>Writing Copy for SEO Purposes</title>
<description> Before working in my current position I was a freelance writer focused on producing
stories for travel magazines. This was the first time I had been involved in developing copy for the
Internet and initially it wasn`t one of the best experiences I have had! </description>
<link>
http://www.hostsearch.com/articles/2006/OCT/
writing_copy_for_seo_purposes_48_0.asp
</link>

</item>

As I mentioned before, RSS Readers open ‘Channels’ and whatever is reading your RSS, that’s how it sees it. We therefore have to define a channel, and again, we need a title, description and link, but this time we don’t make it look like an item. So, the HostSearch articles section channel could look like this:

<title>HostSearch Articles</title>
<description>Articles on all aspects of web hosting and related issues. Something for everyone, whatever their level of experience.</description>
<link>http://www.hostsearch.com/articles/default.asp</link>

If you do not add <item> and </item>, then it will be read as a channel. There are though a few other tags we need to add. We need to tell the reader what RSS versions can use our RSS Feed (here 2.0, which covers previous versions. The finished Channel will look like this:

<rss version=`2.0`>
<channel>
<title>HostSearch Articles</title>
<description>Articles on all aspects of web hosting and related issues. Something for everyone, whatever their level of experience.</description>
<link>http://www.hostsearch.com/articles/default.asp</link>
<item>
<title> Making Money from your Web Site </title>
<description> You’ve created a great site with lots of great content and you have chosen your web host. So… big question… what’s next? Unless you are especially altruistic (and if you search the web, you’ll be surprised to see just how many people are), you’ll probably want to make some money out of your efforts. But how do you turn this stream of dots on a screen into a revenue stream? Here are a few pragmatic tips that might help… basic steps that will get you started and (hopefully) start you thinking. </description>
<link> http://www.hostsearch.com/articles/2006/OCT/
making_money_from_your_web_sit_35_0.asp
 </link>
</item>

<item>
<title> Making Money from your Web Site </title>
<description> You’ve created a great site with lots of great content and you have chosen your web host. So… big question… what’s next? Unless you are especially altruistic (and if you search the web, you’ll be surprised to see just how many people are), you’ll probably want to make some money out of your efforts. But how do you turn this stream of dots on a screen into a revenue stream? Here are a few pragmatic tips that might help… basic steps that will get you started and (hopefully) start you thinking. </description>
<link> http://www.hostsearch.com/articles/2006/OCT/
making_money_from_your_web_sit_35_0.asp
 </link>
</item>

<item>
<title>Listen to your Stats!</title>
<description> It never ceases to amaze me that webmasters, sometimes fairly experienced ones too,
never listen to what their site stats are telling them! In this article I aim to show that even the most basic
site statistic technologies offer you a unique ability to not only establish how many people are visiting
your site, but to drive quality traffic to your pages.
</description>
<link>
http://www.hostsearch.com/articles/2006/OCT/listen_to_your_stats!_49_0.asp
</link>

</item>

<item>
<title>Writing Copy for SEO Purposes</title>
<description>Before working in my current position I was a freelance writer focused on producing
stories for travel magazines. This was the first time I had been involved in developing copy for the Internet
and initially it wasn`t one of the best experiences I have had! </description>
<link>
http://www.hostsearch.com/articles/2006/OCT/writing_copy_for_seo_purposes_48_0.asp
</link>

</item>
</channel>
</rss>

You can save the file in any format and give it any name, although it seems a lot of people prefer
to put the ‘.xml’ extension on a file with an RSS Feed. Now you have the code, and it is saved,
you can upload it.The fact is when I tried to run my feed, it took quite a few times of correction
before I made it happen. I subsequently found out that there is an easier way to fins out what
problems you have created thantrial and error. Kind people have produced RSS Feed validators
to show you where your problems are. The biggy is http://feedvalidator.org/ but a Google search
for “RSS validator” (http://www.google.co.th/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rls=GGLG,
GGLG:2006-26,GGLG:en&q=RSS+Validator
) brings up ample options.

Conclusion

Although it was very pleasing to be able to create an RSS Feed, I can see that doing it by hand all the time could prove a bit of a nuisance. Luckily there are things called RSS Writers that take the strain out of it. Unlike the RSS Readers, free RSS Writers seem to be less in abundance. The sibling to the Tristana Reader I mentioned above is the Tristana Writer - http://www.tristana.org/writer/WriterSetup.exe. Although excellent, you will have to part with some cash to own one so I looked around and found NewsAware Author 1.0 http://newsaware-author.haunted-house-software.qarchive.org/ which appears equally as good. There are though some online writers you can use. www.linkassure.com has http://www.linkassure.com/rss-writer.php - a killer option for this purpose, but again, there are a number on the Internet.

So, now we can manage information with an RSS Reader and we can even create a feed so other people can keep track of the information on your site. In my next article, we will take a look at how to pull somebody else’s RSS Feed into you website.

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