RSS for Your Web Site

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2444, 2006-11-03, as the cover article, in both their print edition (on pages 14 and 16) and their website.

Citizens of cyberspace cannot help but notice that more and more websites are making their content available as RSS feeds. Everywhere you turn — or click, that is — you may see a small orange rectangular icon that reads "RSS" or "XML", usually located at the bottom of the Web page or near the search field for the site.

RSS icons can also take the form of a small orange square, with a white dot in the bottom left-hand corner, and two wave-like curves flowing outwards, suggesting the broadcast nature of RSS. Users of the Web browser Firefox should be quite familiar with this new RSS icon, because one is displayed in the Web address field when the user is visiting any site that offers an RSS feed on that page. Click on the icon to quickly add that particular site's feed as a Live Bookmark.

This usage of RSS, and the public's comfort level with it, are both likely to grow over time as RSS is more deeply embedded into websites and desktop applications. Internet Explorer version 7, Microsoft's long-overdue answer to Firefox and Opera, will feature built-in support for RSS. On the desktop, the upcoming version of Windows promises to support all of the common RSS formats, in addition to allowing programmers to easily integrate RSS into the applications they create for Windows Vista.

Relatively Short Summary

RSS is generally considered to be an acronym for "Really Simple Syndication". It can be thought of as a format for syndicating online news, i.e., for broadcasting news items to anyone who has chosen to subscribe to that particular "RSS feed". By using a standard format for the news, every RSS feed is made easily readable by specially designed desktop or Web-based applications, referred to as RSS "readers" or "aggregators" — that last term indicating how multiple RSS feeds can be combined into a customized news stream.

For instance, if you are interested in the latest high-tech news, you probably have some favorite technology news sites, such as Slashdot and Digg.com. You could visit each one of them, searching for news, every day (or every ten minutes, depending upon your social calendar, cubicle location, and Internet addictions).

But this could become time-consuming, especially if you are only interested in news on a few topics, because you would have to check all of the latest news items, manually picking out only those that interested you. But with RSS, you can now subscribe to websites' RSS feeds in your RSS reader, filter out all the news items that do match the criteria that you choose, and also weed out the advertisements and pop-ups, if any.

Really Special Site

Anyone with a decent website is interested in how to lure visitors for a first look, and then keep them coming back for more in the future. At first glance, it might seem that syndicating your site's contents in the form of an RSS feed, would defeat that goal of enticing return visitors. After all, once they have subscribed to your feed, why would they ever need to view your site within a browser again?

This outlook indicates a misunderstanding of the potential of RSS. Firstly, the news items that you craft for your site's RSS feed can provide the highlights of your site's content, with links that visitors can follow, to read the details on your site. Secondly, an up-to-date RSS feed demonstrates to fellow netizens that your site is not only technically savvy, but is intended to make visitors' lives easier — all of which encourages them to recommend your site and its feed to others.

Perhaps most importantly of all, an RSS feed does not have to be considered the poor cousin of the flashy website, only doling out boring text, simply to keep up with the Joneses. RSS feeds can contain images (more precisely, links to images that your feed reader can grab from the Internet) and other types of elements to make your RSS feed stand out from all those other feeds competing for people's time, attention, and recommendations.

Ready, Set, Start!

If you are convinced that you would like to supplement your site with a custom RSS feed, then you face the tallest hurdle of all, which is generating that feed and making it available to your site's visitors. But it's not as difficult as one might imagine, and there are several ways that you could go about it.

One approach is to use a tool that takes the syndicated news delivered by the RSS feeds of other websites, and combines it into a new feed offered on your site. This has the advantage that you do not have to learn RSS formatting, and you don't have to spend time creating new content for that feed. But it has the disadvantages that you may run afoul of copyright law if mishandled, and it also means that you are dependent upon others for your feed's content. Such applications include CaRP, Feed Mix, FeedRoll, and Jawfish.

If you have some original content that you could craft into your own feed, and you have the technical skills and interest, then you could create a custom script that automatically generates a feed from your Web pages — like I did for my site, using Perl. But this would require your developing a script to match your site's structure, and running it either locally on your own computer prior to uploading the RSS file to your site, or dynamically on whatever Web server is hosting your site.

For nonprogrammers who wish to put together an RSS feed with fresh content, and do not mind doing so manually, then an RSS editor should suffice. Examples include AmphetaDesk, Feedreader, and FeedDemon.

If your site has original content on Web pages, then a more automated and thus time-saving approach would be to use a tool that scans your website's contents and automatically generates an RSS file. The only one I found is Tristana Writer. (Readers are invited to let us know of any others.)

Regardless of which approach you choose, your website would likely benefit from its own RSS feed. Nowadays, no site is complete without one. What site visitor counters were in the late 1990s, RSS feeds are in the latter part of this decade. Fortunately, RSS feeds have the advantages that they are actually useful, and not at all cheesy.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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