RSS Syndication Feeds and Why Do I Care?
Sometimes I'm a little slow on the uptake. For a long time, I
failed to recognize the advantages of RSS news feeds; I just didn't
get it. My journey to enlightenment actually came from a decision
to publish a feed for my own site, but it wasn't until after I had
that done that I realized how powerful this whole concept is.
I did my feed rather grudgingly: more and more people had asked
me to do it, and I noticed more and more other sites doing RSS
feeds too. So I did a little research to find out what I had to do
and how to do it, and wrote the code to produce a simple feed. Of
course I had to be sure that what I was providing actually worked,
so I had to look at it using RSS readers. I was probably too tied
up with the mechanics at first, but as I got more toward the
polishing and refining stages, I realized that RSS news feeds make
a lot of sense, and as I used them even more, I realized that these
really can improve your browsing experience. I'm now "sold", and
want every site I read to have an RSS feed!
Probably my lack of awareness in this area isn't all that
unusual. The only web browser of any popularity that natively
supports news feeds is Netscape, so most web users don't have any
automatic way to use feeds even if they do know such things exist.
There are add-ons and stand-alone tools available, but the more
important question is why you'd bother at all?
Because it's better
There, that was helpful, wasn't it? You really don't need to
read any more: go get yourself an RSS reader and start enjoying the
web. Thanks for visiting!
What, you need to know more? OK, here's the scoop. No matter
what you use the web for, it comes down to two things: getting to
content you have looked at before and need again, and looking for
new content. The first is handled by your browser's bookmark
facilities, but for the second you are on your own. Sure, most
pages have a "What's new" page, and a lot of sites display an index
of their new content at their home page, but web pages are not
consistent, and you also get other content you may not want: ads,
popups and all the other page graphics and links. If you have more
than one or two sites that you visit regularly, finding changes and
new content can be difficult and quite time consuming. RSS is the
answer, because RSS is a structured index of a site. Often it's
just new or changed content, and often is limited to fifteen
entries or less (although RSS feeds can be enormous).
Think of RSS as a set of bookmarks for a site that someone else
has prepared. The bookmarks change as new stuff is added. An RSS
reader shows you the current set of bookmarks. No ads, no pictures,
If that still leaves you shaking your head, try this
"What is RSS?" post for a longer (but still not "techy") description.
Because RSS is rigorously defined, it's easy for RSS readers to
understand what they are looking at: there are specific tags that
define what url to visit, what descriptive text should be attached
to it, etc. I'm not going to get into the technical details of the
different RSS versions, but I'll show you the feed document for
this site. It's an XML document, depending on your browser you
might be able to view it directly by clicking on the XML graphic at
the top of this page. If you can't, here it is:
You don't need to understand this, but the important lines are
the ones that include <title>, <description> and
<link> tags. These describe the newest articles on this
Aside from anything else, you will notice that I include only
fifteen items, and that the newest is at the top (this file is
generated automatically as part of the scripts I use when I add
pages here). The reason I limit it to fifteen lines is simply that
you have to stop somewhere, and many RSS readers just won't display
more than 15 headlines anyway. For my site, fifteen headlines is a
few days worth of new content, so it is a reasonable count. If you
had an RSS reader, all you might see is the "title" elements, or
something like this:
Hover over the link and (depending on your browser) you may see
the description element. This is what an RSS feed gives you: a
succinct view of the data that you are after. Then, just like any
browser, you click on the links you want to read.
So where do you get an RSS reader? It might be available as an
add on to your browser; Mozilla Firebird has an RSS
reader extension. Other possibilities:
Although your favorite sites could already have RSS feeds, you
may want to find other sites that match your interests. There are a
number of news aggregators who organize news feeds by topic. For
organizes feeds along the same structure as the DMOZ Directory. Although more known for
Blogging, Radio Userland
is another aggregator. The RSS readers listed above will usuallly
include other good starting points (though they may also be
terribly out of date).
Give RSS a try. Adding a feed like this site to your RSS reader
is usually as easy as clicking (sometimes right clicking) on the
XML icon at the top of the page. Once you've done that, checking to
see if there is new content that interests you is much faster and
easier than it ever has been before.
Unfortunately, some sites that do have feeds don't advertise
them well, and naming conventions aren't consistent. Slashdot has a
file, but it took me a while to find it. The file might have a
.xml, .rss or .rdf extension, and could be named anything. It is
worth hunting, though.
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