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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, just bookmarks.

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:

Show XML`

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 site.

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.

Readers

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:


Aggregators

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 example, Syndic8.com 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 http://slashdot.org/slashdot.rdf 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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Mon May 7 16:05:52 2007: 2990   rbailin


Tony,

I recently subscribed to the "Site News (direct, no FeedBurner)" feed using IE7 and Outlook 2007 (which now supports RSS feeds and shares them with IE7).

In Outlook 2007, the timestamp on all of the latest 25 articles downloaded is March 18, 2007 07:58PM, which is the date listed at the top of the webpage http://aplawrence.com/rss/feedburner.rss, rather than the individual post dates shown with each article.

This feed is the only one of the dozen or so I subscibe to that exhibits this behavior.

--Bob



Mon May 7 19:41:16 2007: 2991   TonyLawrence

gravatar
Simply lack of activity here..



Tue May 15 15:17:05 2007: 2996   rbailin


Here's another example:

Today's latest post on Designing BSD Rootkits was posted today (05/15/2007 - obviously), but the timestamp in the Outlook 2007 RSS feed is 04/15/2007 9:34 AM.

Off by one month, exactly.

--Bob



Thu May 17 15:35:57 2007: 2999   rbailin


...And with your latest post about the WD MyBook, the timestamp is back to normal, May 17th 8:14AM, as expected. Thanks.

--Bob

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