RSS, Feeds, and Aggregators

When you work online all the time, immersed in bits and bytes, hands automatically resting on the keyboard, where the lingua franca is a mish-mash of acronyms and abbreviations - it is easy to forget that the average person has no clue what we talk about. It can be very daunting for the Internet neophyte with all these terms, technology and hardware. That's why I wrote this. Because I don't want people to be afraid to either ask (via comments on this thread) or to click/use buttons they don't know or use.

Way back when I started blogging (6-7 months ago!), I was a complete n00b in these blogging terms too. Now while I'm not exactly the lead programmer at RSS central I do know a thing or two, but when I really think about it I'm only just paddling at the moment so maybe I can help others get into the paddling pool too!

RSS

Really Simple Syndication, let's break it down into the real basics. It is essentially a broken down look at the web page/site, stripping all the presentation and layout, and removing all the neat graphics and cool toys that generally clutter webpages. What's left is an RSS file (in XML format).

Surprisingly out of 1,000 blog readers (who are themselves a small elite minority among Internet users) 66% have not even heard of RSS and 23% said they understood but did not use it. Where do you stand?

Feeds

This is just a another way of writing what RSS can do. Feeds are a blog's (or site's) method of syndicating content, arranged concisely in an XML format and, as mentioned above, stripped of any extraneous presentation. The "feed" comes from aggregators requesting that RSS file to display as content for their subscribers (feeding their need for your well-written articles!).

Aggregators

It's a straightforward description for what it is: it aggregates RSS feeds from whatever source you tell it. These are also sometimes called "newsreaders" although this term is falling out of favor.

There are two types: software and web-based. Software has a following - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_news_aggregators#Desktop_news_aggregators, but web-based is beginning to draw more of the usage. Rapidly expanding online aggregators such as http://www.bloglines.com/, or http://my.yahoo.com/ are leading the way. With blog traffic up 31 percent since the beginning of the year, readers will need a way to sort through the blogosphere, and aggregators are that way.

The main advantage of aggregators is that they allow you to gather all your feeds in one place, and read them without having to navigate all over the place.

Adding Your Feed

You will have noticed button labeled RSS, often times they are orange rectangles (they are also labeled XML). That is the feed button - clicking it will show a lot of XML code. Note the URI, copy it. Then go to your aggregator, software or web-based, and paste that URI as the feed address and save. That will allow the aggregator to know where to fetch the feed and it will do it automatically from that point on.

What's The Advantage?

A big advantage to RSS is that you, the subscriber, is in control. Let's say you go to xyz.com and look for an article on Blogging software. You find it, but there are advertising banners, fly-ins, pop-ups, and then just as annoying you have to click three or four times to go to the "next page" with yet more of the same. With a feed (and appropriate aggregator) you get just the article (content) without all of the extra stuff.

The Future of RSS

So what is in store for us with RSS? I don't have a crystal ball but some things are plain to see. The future of RSS is bright and yet at the same time likely to be mired in specification wars, mainly due to Microsoft's insistence that they rename RSS to 'web feeds' for the upcoming IE7 release. You can read more about this hotly debated subject at http://www.pcpro.co.uk/news/76104/microsoft-defends-rss-rebranding.html and at http://www.microsoftmonitor.com/archives/009849.html

There is no doubt though that RSS is here to stay. It has become an integral part of the blogosphere, a method of aggregating large amounts of content from hundreds of blogs into one place. From a blogger's point of view RSS is essential to building and keeping an audience. Wary of clicking on subscriptions, Internet users finally have a way to grab your content (updated every day, right?) when they want it. For the blogger they now have a way to syndicate their articles, sharing them among other sites who publish those articles. Those who syndicate get content, and the blogger gets exposure.

Richard Dows is a web designer living in Florida, working on small businesses, blogs, site design, and more. You can find him working on his own blog at http://www.thex.com/rd/ or writing and participating in others like http://www.balancednewsblog.com/ and http://www.thex.com/webstandards/

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