Software

Cheat Sheet: RSS feeds

Are you getting your news feeds RSS about face?

RSS. Another one of those acronyms, then. You best start off by telling me what it stands for.
Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary, depending on who you listen to.

I'm none the wiser. Go on, give me a bit more detail.
Think of it like a sort of sort of souped-up, DIY Ceefax for news.

Right.
Basically, RSS is a simple, XML-based way for companies to publish their content and for users to get hold of it - usually news or blog updates - online without having to repeatedly log on to a website to check for the latest development.

Commonly, news providers will provide a title and a few sentences from a news story, which will be fed through an RSS reader or web browser. Users will often be presented with a list of text headlines acting as gateway to full stories or other web content.

You can see an example of one reader in action below.

Why do we need RSS when we've got email alerts and newsletters?
RSS cuts out a lot of spam for one thing and it tends to return more focused results. It also helps keep your inbox from bloating.

So where did all this RSS stuff come from? And is it expensive?
RSS was originally created by Netscape in the late 1990s. The browser makers subsequently made the specification public and now it's widely used. A lot of RSS readers can be downloaded for free - Mozilla's open source Firefox browser has RSS reading functionality built in or there are several free readers available, including Pluck and RSSReader. Most RSS readers, paid-for or free, are operating system-specific though - for example, Newswire only works on Mac OS and FeedDemon only works with Windows.

Grand. Do all news sites do RSS?
Nope. Most of the larger news organisations do provide their news in RSS format but there are a few notable exceptions, including Google news. The ones that do use RSS will usually carry a rectangular 'XML' badge or have a link to an RSS page at the bottom of their site. You can get yourself an RSS version of silicon.com here.

It sounds like a good idea - but is anyone actually using it?
Yes indeed. RSS aggregators have already sprung up, allowing news fans to cherry-pick their favourite feeds from a variety of sources or select the feed based on a keyword or two.

And as is always the way of such things, marketers are already getting very excited about the prospect, with one firm already creating a system that matches adverts to the type of RSS feeds you look at.

According to one author, email blacklisting and disinterest in email marketing has already made RSS feeds the only viable way for markets to get the attention of the online public.

That's news to me.
RSS feeds aren't just news though - businesses are already finding different uses for the technology. Apple, for example, uses RSS feeds as a marketing tool, allowing iTunes users to follow when new songs by a certain artist or within a new genre are added to the online music store's catalogue while others are punting RSS as a project management tool.

But I'll bet there's a cloud on the RSS horizon somewhere...
You'd not lose your money, certainly. In terms of news syndication, there is a competing standard called Atom, which is being worked on by the Internet Engineering Task Force and is supported by the likes of Gmail.

The jury's out on whether the news-reading new boy is a help or a hindrance - some argue the addition of another standard just confuses matters whilst others believe that Atom has more features and flexibility than RSS.

About

Jo Best has been covering IT for the best part of a decade for publications including silicon.com, Guardian Government Computing and ZDNet in both London and Sydney.

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