Are you hearing a lot of about RSS but don't really know what it's all about? Well, I have to say early on I was wondering the same thing.
The trouble with some emerging technology is the early adopters want to stay the cool kids and be the only ones using it. So they use all the technical terms (sometimes incorrectly) and spout off to one another. Meanwhile, others stand by nodding their heads like foreigners pretending to understand what they are saying so they don't look silly.
As one of my favorite sayings goes, “Ask a question and you are a fool for a moment, don't ask the question and you are a fool for a lifetime.” Here are a whole bunch of questions I have heard relating to RSS and hopefully some clear answers.
Put simply, what is an RSS feed?
A very simple description of RSS could be “a way for websites to send out simple news and updates, in an easy to read, hassle free way”. For most people this is all they need to know. RSS, however, can be (and is) much more than this, based on your own creativity.
What does RSS stand for?
Really Simple Syndication is the most accepted term. Rich Site Summary has also had a good run. Neither describe very well what RSS is. On the street, it is more often than not just called a “feed”.
Why is everyone talking like it is the next big thing?
I like to think of myself as a reasonably savvy guy when it comes to new technology. Especially technology that relates to online communication. However, I must admit that early on it was only my gut instinct that made me look further into RSS.
I think it is a bit like the early days on the web when we started talking about database driven websites. I had a sense of the significance of the technology, but hadn't really conceptualized how it might play out in the real world.
Here's where I think the magic of RSS is. So far on the web we haven't had a very useful or standardized method for websites and software to talk with one another. RSS is a step towards the solution to this problem. It's like a new standard language that websites (among other things) can interact with one another. With this better communication we are only limited by our imagination (and our programmers' talents) to what we can achieve.
What are some specific examples of how RSS can work in the real world?
Let me say from the outset that people are doing some very complex and amazing things with RSS that are beyond the scope of this little article. However, to get your mind thinking along the lines of some of the things you can do with RSS let me give you a few examples:
1) Set up a start page (like the ones available at Google or Netvibes) that allows you to display RSS feeds for all different sites that you regularly visit. Instead of having to waste time visiting all these sites you can see at a glance which ones have been updated, and even see what those updates are.
2) If you have a website you can encourage your visitors to subscribe to your feed so they see your regular updates without having to rely on email to learn about them. This solves many of the problems that email marketing is plagued with such as trying to pierce the spam filters. Forget about having to think up new weird and wonderful ways to spell “money” and “free”. The message just goes straight through.
3) Share (often referred to as syndicate) your content on other websites using RSS. You control what is displayed including the links back to the full article giving you valuable backward links.
4) Interact with social bookmarking and content watching sites like Technorati and de.licio.us.
5) Mash together multiple feeds to create new weird and wonderful solutions.
Is my browser broken? It just looks like code when I press one of those buttons?
This is often a problem for the new kid on the RSS block. Nothing is broken, it is just that Internet Explorer doesn't know how to handle RSS correctly and just shows the underlying code. You will need to cut and paste this location (out of the browser address bar) and put it into your favorite feed reader.
Yeah, but what feed reader should I use?
Good question and not one I can answer for every individual. I have tried lots of different methods. I use the Opera browser in which the RSS feed is totally integrated so it is no problem. The RSS feed is read in much the same was as email is.
You can also use dedicated feed readers like FeedReader that will work in a similar way.
However, the problem is that I often just don't read it because I get so much email anyway.
What I find to be the most beneficial is putting it on one of the personal portals that are gaining momentum. For example, I use a service called Netvibes that allows me to set up all the RSS feeds on one page (among other things). I syndicate all my favorite websites, as well as the feed I have from my tasks manager. In one quick glance I can see a lot of the vital information that I want to have at my fingertips. Google also has a very good service that works in a similar way.
What is that orange link called?
If you want to sound like you know what you are talking about, that thing is called a “chicklet”.
Is RSS the same thing as a blog?
No. The reason for the confusion is that almost all blogging software provides an RSS feed and a blog is one of the easiest ways for people to begin to create these feeds.
Is RSS used for black hat search engine optimization?
No, just like any other method of search engine optimization, used responsibly your feed can be a fantastic tool for search engine optimization. To go into this fully is beyond the scope of this article. However, you will find that using RSS and pinging the various feed directories helps get your site spidered very quickly. RSS can also be used powerfully for gaining links to your site.
What the heck is a ping?
A ping is just the software saying, “Hey everyone, I just updated my site and my feed has changed.”
What is the difference between RSS and podcasting?
There isn't much difference. A podcast feed is just a special type of feed in a special format that deals with audio (and video).
How do I put other people's content on my site using RSS?
You would think that given the popularity of RSS feeds nowadays this would be a formality. Unfortunately, there aren't many simple ways for people to do this. Some content mangement systems are starting to include this capability in the software out of the box. Technically savvy people can use a couple of other methods.
However, the easiest method I have found is to hope the person is using Feedburner. They provide a very simple method to syndicate your content. If you are a content publisher, it gives you another reason to use their free service because it makes it very easy for others to integrate your feed into their site.
Is it the same as Google Site Maps?
No. While Google Site Maps is also an XML file, it just provides a map of the framework of your entire site. In comparison, normal RSS feeds are focused on recent content, such as the last 10 posts on your blog.
I am still a little apprehensive, is there a simple way for me to handle all this stuff?
One of the best free services I have found is the Feedburner service. They provide lots of tools to help you get up and running with RSS.