More websites are starting to offer RSS feeds, and more users are making use of RSS readers instead of visiting every website they want to read individually. But what is RSS, why is it getting popular, and – most importantly –what can it do for you? Read on.

What is RSS?

RSS stands for ‘really simple syndication', and it does exactly what it says on the tin. Invented by Dave Winer, one of the first webloggers, the format aims to provide a standardised way to obtain a website's content, instead of forcing people to try to pick it out of masses of HTML. It is a simple XML (strictly, RDF) language designed to make it easy to describe content.

Information RSS gives you about content includes its title, the dates when it was created and last updated, and its URL. There is also a space for content, which can either be used to provide a summary of the content at the URL or just to provide the content itself.

Which Version?

There is a bit of a controversy about the versions of RSS, for the simple reason that one is wildly different to the others. While RSS 0.9 and 2.0 are broadly similar, RSS 1.0 is widely considered to be a disaster – little software understands or uses it, as it's just too complicated. For most purposes, then, you should stick to RSS 0.9 if what you're doing is relatively simple, and offer RSS 2.0 if you want to give more detail to some of your users.

How is RSS Produced?

While you could write a script of your own to turn your content into RSS (it wouldn't be that difficult if you store your articles in a database), almost all CMSes and blog software packages now do it for you automatically – if you're looking for it, keep an eye out for a small orange button that says ‘XML' or ‘RSS' on it. All you have to do is give some prominence to the RSS feed, with instructions to your visitors on what it's for and how to use it.

With most software, then, the RSS should be produced either when you update your content or, alternatively, every time someone asks for the RSS. It's important to understand that RSS isn't a ‘push' mechanism: updating it doesn't send changes to anyone until their software asks for them to be sent. This often means a window of five to ten minutes between something going in the RSS feed and people seeing it.

How Do RSS Readers Work?

RSS readers work by allowing a user to ‘subscribe' to a feed, either by entering the URL of an RSS feed manually or by clicking on a link that starts with feed://. The reader then works something like an email program, retrieving new entries as they are added to the RSS and alerting the user – indeed, they are similar enough that many email programs now include a built-in RSS reader.

When the user opens the new RSS entry, they will see what you put in the content area, usually with a link to open that page of your website in their web browser. You have to realise, though, that they won't see any of your ads or graphics in the RSS feed, so it's best to give them some kind of incentive to click through.

What Else is RSS Used For?

RSS readers might be the most common use of RSS, but the format was designed to be used for almost anything. There's nothing to stop you, for example, from taking an RSS feed from another website and publishing it on yours – you can even be an ‘aggregator', mixing relevant content from the RSS feeds of lots of different websites to create a new, more useful website.

That's where the word ‘syndication' in RSS' name comes from: it lets you virtually syndicate other people's content on your site, and it lets people syndicate your content on theirs. It benefits everyone, since the one doing the aggregating gets more content for their website, while the one being linked to gets more links to theirs. If you want to do well on the web, you should make sure you've got an RSS fede

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