Getting Comfortable with RSS
I had originally scheduled this post for later in May, but the folks at Daily Blog Tips declared May 1 RSS Appreciation Day and I decided to join in the fun. So you lucky readers get not one but two posts this Thursday — a day when I normally don’t post at all!
Depending who you ask, RSS stands for either “Really Simple Syndication” or “Rich Site Summary”; either way, what it amounts to is a feed of content generated by your site (or some other source) in a standardized format. This means that content can be read, aggregated, republished, automatically downloaded, and otherwise manipulated in a variety of different kinds of formats.
Some more common kinds of feeds are:
- Blog feeds: Most blog software these days automatically generate an RSS feed, allowing readers to subscribe to that site’s content and read it in a centralized location, like the online RSS reader Google Reader. Whenever you update your site, the post is automatically added to your feed, so your readers always have the latest and greatest.
- Comment feeds: Not all sites do this, but it’s a nice touch. A comment feed includes all the comments that are made on a site, so people can track conversations as they develop without having to revisit every single post page to see if there are any new comments. Some sites also offer individual feeds for each post.
- Podcasts: Podcast feeds are really specialized post feeds. When you plug any RSS feed whose posts have links to audio or video files into a “podcatcher” (a specialized program that downloads podcasts and puts them into your mp3 player’s sync folder to transfer to your player), the program will automatically download the attached files. Sites that include a lot of non-audio/video material will often provide a separate feed just for posts with podcasts attached.
Because RSS is a standard, any kind of frequently updated information can be provided as a feed. Shipping companies like UPS and FedEx have started to provide tracking feeds, so you can see where your packages are at any given moment. Photo storage services like Flickr offer a feed of the most recent files uploaded to their user’s accounts. Some movie theaters offer feeds of their schedule, so you can see what’s new. And so on — the possibilities are practically endless.
Since most blogging software today automatically generates RSS feeds, there isn’t much to do if you’re a blogger except make sure there’s a clearly marked link on your front page. Even that isn’t strictly necessary, as the latest browsers all auto-detect RSS feeds, allowing surfers to subscribe from the address bar. But it’s nice to have a link anyway, usually marked with one of those slick orange boxes with the radio wave icon — not everyone will know how their browser’s auto-detect feature works, plus you can add text around your link to help persuade people to subscribe.
If you offer a comment feed or a podcast, make sure they are clearly identified and distinguished from your main feed. If you have a podcast, also, you’re going to want to give the feed address to directories like iTunes, where people can search for and find your show.
Because RSS used to be quite complicated, a lot of people have developed less technical-sounding names for it. “Newsfeed” or “webfeed” are popular, for instance. Nowadays, though, however complex RSS might be behind the scenes, for end users like you and me all we have to know is that it’s there and has a unique address (usually something like www.yourdomain.com/rss.xml).