What Is This RSS, XML, RDF, and Atom Business?

It's been a long day at work and you're in no mood to cook dinner or go out. Time to count on the reliable pizza delivery guy. The order is called in and he promptly arrives with smokin' hot pizza within 30 minutes as promised. If it were only that easy with a picky family where no one can agree on the same restaurant for dinner. One wants Mexican, another wants Chinese, and another wants a burger and Mexican. Instead of running to three different places, you call a delivery service that goes to all of them and brings it to you. What could be easier in getting a meal without cooking it or fetching it?

RSS, XML, RDF, and Atom are the food delivery guy of the Internet. The content they deliver is mixed and cooked elsewhere on the Internet just like the meal isn't made on your door step and the acronym fellows bring the content to you via software or an online application. Instead of trying to remember all the places where you like to go to get the latest news, it all comes to you once you order your food.

Click on any of those orange or blue RSS, XML, or RDF buttons and you see unreadable text. Some of it is readable, but reading between the is slow and difficult. In this case, you've got the raw ingredients of the content known as a feed. To make it easily readable, download a feed reader that can interpret (aggregate) the ingredients or sign up for an online service that can do the same.

When the software or application is ready to go, click on the orange or blue button (or "Syndicate This Page," or whatever is along these lines) and copy the resulting URL from the address box. Paste it into the application to cook the ingredients where it's delivered to you ready for your enjoyment.

Syndication is a not a new concept on the Internet, but it's growing in popularity as more Web sites and newsletters are churning content to turn it into syndicated files, which are fed into an aggregator. Think of it as the content that's ready to travel anywhere it needs to go. Grab the feed and feed it to the aggregator, another way of bookmarking (or creating a favorite) a site because you wish to come back again another time. But how often did you go back to the site through your bookmarks / favorites?

Instead of schlepping from site to site in search of information, I have it all in front of me via the aggregator. The feeds are sorted in folders by topic for easy finding. If I'm writing about the latest virus or worm, then I open the security folder with the security-related feeds and scan them. Scanning content through aggregators is easier than on a Web site because it's in one folder with headlines and maybe a short summary. On a Web site, you're only getting the benefit of that site's news and no where else. The folder has news from over ten resources including blogs, news sites, and newsletters.

Any content can be syndicated. It's a matter of having the backend process in place, which is dependent on the application used for managing the content. If a site doesn't have such resources, then there is software for entering content to create a file with the feed for posting on the site.

Most aggregators have exporting capabilities so the feed can be shared with others interested in the same topic. If you're interested in my security feeds, I can export them into, in most cases, an OPML file and you can import it into your aggregator.

Spam filters are preventing readers from getting newsletters or they get lost in the spam pool. Offering a feed for the newsletter is a compromise. Readers can get the content, only instead of it coming to the emailbox, it comes through the aggregator. It's a way around spam. Like everything else, it has its advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages:

  • Filters can't stop the newsletter from reaching its destination.
  • The recipient will get it - if the server is down, it'll download next time and email can get lost.
  • The feed can be syndicated providing more exposure for your content.

Disadvantages:

  • Rely on readers to open aggregators like they open email client, but some aggregators are built-in with an email client like NewsGator and there are online aggregators like Bloglines, which can be your home page.
  • Metrics won't be as complete, but it's still there through the links.
  • Not as pretty as HTML-based newsletters.

If the feed is automatically created, what have you got to lose? You're providing another way for your readers to get your content just like you can get pizza in different ways: go to the restaurant, have it delivered, or make it at home. More applications are adding syndication capabilities, which make the process effortless. Some have said they won't read something unless it has a feed.

Syndication works better than bookmarks. With bookmarks, you click on a site that might have the security information and arrive there to find it doesn't. So, back to the bookmarks to click on another site. Lather, rinse, repeat. With aggregators, there is no jumping from site to site. Scan the headlines right there until you find what you need.

There was a time when we didn't have the option to have pizza delivered to our doorstep. When we're too tired, we know we can rely on the delivery guy. In term of content, expect to see it show up at your doorstep more often than the pizza guy plus it's cheaper with the cost only coming from the software though there are many free options available. Syndication is here to stay and should be added to a company's communication toolbox rather than as a replacement. Witness it by watching for RSS, XML, RDF, and Atom out there.

Meryl K. Evans is the Content Maven behind meryl.net who increases conversion rates by writing and editing content so organization can focus on their core business. She is the editor-in-chief of the eNewsletter Journal and Shavlik's The Remediator Security Digest. Visit her Web site at http://www.meryl.net/blog/.

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