RSS for Your Website

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2731, 2009-07-31, as a feature article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 10-12) and their website.

RSS, an acronym for "Really Simple Syndication", can be thought of as both a format and a standardized delivery mechanism for distributing syndicated news online. In other words, it allows you to broadcast content to anyone who has chosen to subscribe to your RSS feed. By utilizing a generally accepted format for the content, every RSS feed is made easily readable by specially designed desktop or Web-based applications, referred to as RSS "readers" or "aggregators" — that latter term suggesting how multiple RSS feeds can be combined into a customized news stream, for consumption by the user.

For example, if you are interested in keeping up to date with the latest high-tech news, you probably have some favorite technology news sites, such as Digg.com and Slashdot. You could visit each one of them individually, searching for news, every day (or every ten minutes, depending upon how far away your cubicle is from your boss's).

Yet this manual checking of news would be quite time-consuming, especially if you want to check the latest news on dozens of sites, or you are only interested in news on a few topics. In that latter case, you would have to scan through all of the latest news items, manually picking out only those that interested you. But with RSS, you can now subscribe to the RSS feeds of all of those websites, in your aggregator. If desired, you could additionally filter out any news items that do not match the criteria that you have chosen, and also weed out the ads and pop-ups, if any.

Relatively Slick Symbol

Years ago, only the most cutting edge sites had newsfeeds. But nowadays, any decent site has one. They are easily spotted because the site's homepage will somewhere display some sort of RSS icon. It may take the form of a small orange rectangular icon that reads "RSS" or "XML", and typically 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, with two wave-like curves flowing outwards, indicative of the broadcast nature of RSS. These icons are quickly becoming the standard.

RSS feed icon
Figure 1. RSS feed icon

Users of the Web browser Firefox (http://www.mozilla.com/firefox/) should be familiar with this new RSS icon, because when the user is visiting any site that offers an RSS feed on that page, the orange symbol is displayed in the browser's address field. To quickly add that particular site's feed as a Live Bookmark, simply click on the icon. If you are logged into Google, it will display a subscription page, allowing you to add the feed to your Google homepage or Google Reader, their aggregator. Users of Internet Explorer 7 and 8 should see the same RSS icon in the Command toolbar (which by default is located underneath the Favorites toolbar and to the right of the window tabs).

The public's familiarity with RSS feeds will probably increase over time, as RSS becomes more integral to websites and desktop applications. Internet Explorer version 7 introduced built-in support for RSS. On the desktop, Windows Vista added support for the common RSS formats — in addition to making it much easier for programmers to integrate RSS into the applications they develop for that particular operating system.

Really Special Site

If you have a website, then you are probably quite interested in learning techniques for attracting additional visitors, both first-time and long-term. It may appear at first glance that syndicating your site's contents in the form of an RSS feed, would defeat your goal of attracting return visitors, because once they have subscribed to your newsfeed, why would they ever need to return to your site?

This conclusion would be overly simplistic, because it fails to understand the potential of RSS newsfeeds. First of all, the news items that you create for your site's RSS feed can be limited to the highlights of your site's content, and can include links that visitors can follow, to read the details on your site. (Admittedly, this goes against the spirit of saving visitors' time through syndication.) In addition, an up-to-date newsfeed — one that includes the full contents of each post, and not just links — demonstrates to the online world that your site is not only technically savvy, but is designed to make people's lives easier; all of this can encourage those people to recommend your site and its newsfeed to others.

An RSS feed does not have to be considered a pale shadow of your visually rich website, limited to dull text. RSS feeds can be spiced up with images, audio extracts, embedded video clips, and other types of multimedia — all of which can help make your site's feed stand out from all those other ones competing for people's attention, time, and recommendations.

Ready, Set, Syndicate!

Once you are convinced that it would be in your best interests, and those of your visitors, to enhance your website with an RSS feed, then you come up against the biggest challenge of all, which is figuring out the best way to create your site's RSS feed, and making it available to your site's visitors. Fortunately, these steps are not as difficult as you mind imagine, and there are several straightforward ways that you accomplish them, without needing a degree in computer science.

One method is to use a tool that takes the syndicated content delivered by the RSS feeds of other websites, and combines all of it into a new RSS feed, that you can then publish on your own site. Tools that can perform this operation include CaRP, Feed Mix, Feed Combiner, and Jawfish. The prices and capabilities of these tools vary, so be sure to do your homework. This approach has the advantage that you do not have to learn how to format an RSS feed, and you don't have to spend any time creating new content for that feed. Yet it has the disadvantages that you might run afoul of copyright law if proper attribution is not given, and it also means that you are completely dependent upon other sites for your newsfeed's content.

If you have some original content that you would like to offer the public as your own newsfeed, and you also have the technical skills and interest to do so, then you could program a custom script that automatically creates a feed from your Web pages — just as I did for my site, using the Perl programming language. But this would involve your creating 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 website, or running it dynamically on whatever Web server is hosting your site.

For nonprogrammers who want to create an RSS feed with their own content, and are willing to do so manually, then an RSS editor is the best choice. Such programs include RSS Editor, RSSeditor/Win, and Mozilla's RSS Editor. Speaking of Mozilla, their flagship Web browser, Firefox, can be utilized as an RSS editor through the use of the RSS Editor add-on.

If your site has original content on Web pages, and you don't want to spend time manually creating a feed from that content, then a more automated and time-saving approach would be to use an application that scans your site's contents and automatically generates an RSS file. One such application is Tristana Writer.

To add the RSS file to your HTML pages — thereby making it available to visitors to your site — you need to include a special line in the

element of each Web page. For instance, let's assume that you have named your newsfeed file RSS.xml, and placed it in the root directory of your website. (This approach is the default, used by most sites.) Then if you were to include the following line in any HTML file in the root directory, than a visitor to that page would see the icon for your newsfeed and be able to subscribe to it easily: <link href="http://www.ross.ws/sites/default/files/articles/RSS%20for%20Your%20Website/RSS.xml" rel="alternate" title="RSS" type="application/rss+xml" />

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 this new decade. Yet unlike visitor counters, RSS feeds have the advantage that they are actually useful.

Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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