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RSS Feeds

RSS is an efficient way to get information quickly from the web. Basically, it drives information from the web directly to readers instead of forcing those readers to surf a list of bookmarked sites. Think of it as the difference between subscribing to a magazine and going out each month to buy that magazine at a newsstand.

For example, subscribers to the New York Times' RSS feed see a constantly updated list of the front-page stories on the Times' web site without having to visit the site itself. If they see a headline that looks interesting, they can simply click on it, and their web browser automatically opens the story.

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. There are two halves that make it work: an RSS feed created by a website and a news aggregator program that reads that feed.

Feeds

An RSS feed, sometimes called a web feed, is a text file containing a very specific format that is standard across the web.

To create an RSS feed, you should have a page on your website that contains a computer-scannable list of the latest items you've added. The information is tagged with special code that allows a news aggregator to interpret it much like a web browser interprets HTML code for a web page.

RSS feeds are written in a language called XML. If HTML creates web pages designed for humans to read, XML presents information in a way that's easy for other computers to read.

Every RSS feed file contains the following information, categorized with XML tags:

  • Information about the feed, or "channel," itself. This can include the name of the feed ("My News Site's Headlines," for example), a link to its website ("http://www.mysite.com"), and a description of the topics the feed includes ("Breaking news headlines").
The code for that RSS file would look like this:
<title>My News Site's Headlines</title>
<link>http://mysite.com</link>
<description>The latest news headlines about my community</description>
  • A list of items - the links, pages or updates - that make up the feed. Each item needs, at the very least, a title and a link. Items can also include short text descriptions. If you were creating an RSS feed of stories for a news website, the title would be the story's headline, the link connects to the web page that contains the story, and the description might be the story's lead sentence or paragraph.
The code for a sample item in an RSS file would look like this:
<item>
<title>Parents, teachers clash at school board meeting</title>
<link>http://mysite.com/news/schoolboard.html</link>
<description>Teachers demanding higher salaries and parents complaining about higher school taxes engaged in a heated debate at last night's local school board meeting.</description>
</item>

It's possible to create an RSS feed with nothing more than a text editor such as Notepad or BBEdit, just as you would any HTML file. There are plenty of tutorials like this one that will show you how. However, if you manually create an RSS feed, you'll have to go in and edit the file every time you need to update it with new information.

Many content management or blogging systems now create an RSS feed for you, automatically updating it with new items as you make changes and additions to the rest of your site.

News Aggregators

A news aggregator is a program designed to read, catalog and subscribe to RSS feeds. It's designed to interpret RSS feeds and display them to readers as lists of clickable headlines.

There are many different aggregator programs with varying features; some cost money and others are free. You can find a selection of news aggregators by searching such sites as Download.com (http://www.download.com). We've provided links to a few of the more prominent programs at the end of this chapter.

As users browse the web, they are increasingly seeing links inviting them to subscribe to an RSS feed. Many sites with RSS feeds display them with small orange "XML" buttons like this one:

When users click that button, they get the address of a site's RSS feed file. By entering that address into their aggregator - much like bookmarking a website in a browser - they subscribe to that feed. Every time readers open their aggregators, they'll see lists of that feed's latest items. Clicking on a headline in the list opens the reader's browser to the Web page with the full story.

Modern web browsers include the ability to easily subscribe to RSS feeds. Firefox allows users to create "Live Bookmarks" from RSS feeds. Apple's Safari and Microsoft's Internet Explorer automatically detects the presence of an RSS feed on a site and lets users read or subscribe to that feed at the click of a button.

The Advantages of RSS

RSS offers advantages to both website publishers and users:

  • RSS increases efficiency. Readers can keep track of many more sites more quickly than they could by surfing through a list of bookmarked sites.
  • RSS targets audiences. Readers get information that is tailored to their interests without having to wade through unwanted information on slow-loading websites.
  • RSS adds value. Web publishers can automatically deliver the latest links to their readers without having to advertise.
  • RSS promotes linking. When other sites use your RSS feed to display an updated list of your headlines, they drive readers to your site.

Helpful Links

Here are some widely used news aggregators to get you started:

Web-based:

Windows applications:

Mac applications:

To learn to create RSS feeds, turn to:

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