Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What Is RSS?

Regular readers of this blog may notice links in the navigation bar labeled "RSS Feed" and "Atom Feed." You may also notice a small orange square in the browser's location box. Recently, I was asked a few questions about those, so I thought it would make a good topic for a blog post. This post will explain what those are, and how to use them.

RSS stands for "Really Simple Syndication" (or "Rich Site Summary," or "RDF Site Summary"). An RSS feed is an XML file that contains an excerpt from each new post. An Atom feed has a different format but serves the same function. RSS provides a way for websites with regularly-updated content to let readers know that new content is available. Site feeds are popular with both blog writers and blog readers. Many newspapers and other websites also provide site feeds.

Site feeds have many uses. Some websites are devoted, in whole or in part, to aggregating feeds from other sites. Technorati, for example, links to each new post on any blog in their database. DCblogs has a page that uses site feeds to link to individual posts from many local blogs. Such websites are great if you like the subjects they follow. Chances are, though, that you follow sites from multiple subject areas. In that case, it makes more sense to subscribe to feeds via a newsreader service.


Why use RSS for reading blogs? Many blogs publish frequently, but not on a strict schedule. When you visit, you cannot be sure whether a new post or article will be available. Likewise, if you do not visit for a few days, you may miss some posts. An RSS feed notifies you when a new post is available on a site to which you subscribe. If you like a lot of different sites, it may be difficult to remember or time-consuming to visit each of them. RSS subscriptions are one way to organize and speed up blog reading. You can subscribe to RSS feeds by one of the following methods.

1. Browser-based newsreader. Browser-based newsreaders sit inside the browser and allow coordination between reading feeds and normal browsing activities. Such newsreaders are generally extensions or add-ons, like Firefox's Sage newsreader. (Sage is my primary newsreader.) It is fast and easy to use. Some browsers include a "Live Bookmarks" folder. Bookmarks saved in that folder will be marked when new content is available.

2. Desktop newsreader. These are stand-alone programs that are separate from the web browser and that manage and display site feeds. Some examples are listed here. (I do not use any desktop clients myself, so I cannot vouch for their quality.) Some email clients will also handle site feeds.

3. Web-based newsreader. Web-based newsreaders offer individual password-protected accounts where you can organize your feed subscriptions. The main advantage is that you can view your subscriptions away from your main computer. If you read blogs from several different computers, a web-based reader is probably the best solution. The disadvantage is that they tend to work a little more slowly than desktop or browser readers. Some examples are Bloglines, Newsgator, My Yahoo!, and Google Reader. (I have used Google Reader and found that the software is easy to use.) If you have an account at Technorati, you can follow your favorite blogs through that account via their favorites function. Those are only a few; several more readers are compared here.

4. Receive new posts by email. Some weblogs, including this one, give readers the option to receive posts by email. This service is coordinated by Feedblitz and uses the site feed to send messages. To receive this blog's feed in email format, add your email via the box at the top of the right-hand column.

There are more detailed tutorials on using RSS feeds here and here.


Why publish a site feed? The one thing that unites all bloggers is a desire for people to read what we have to say. Site feeds make it easier for busy people to follow and read our postings. It is especially good for small and low-readership blogs. You might not get readers to visit every day, but if a reader subscribes to your feed, you know that your writings are getting read, or at least viewed, regularly.

There is a small downside to having people read posts via a newsreader. RSS readers will not see any notes or links on the sidebar, and will not notice any improvements to the page structure. RSS readers tend not to be counted in your sitemeter statistics, so you may see a small dip there. However, I believe that the good accomplished by building an audience more than makes up for the small dent in traffic.

So, here are a few options available if you publish a site feed.

1. Most bloggers publish feeds through their blog platform. This is the easiest route, especially since many platforms, including Blogger, make publishing a feed the default setting. In Blogger's case, the default feed is an Atom rather than RSS feed, but RSS is available as well. Here is a tutorial for how to enable or modify a site feed in Blogger.

2. Some bloggers choose to publish their feeds through a service like Feedburner. This is somewhat more complicated process than publishing through your blog platform. The main advantage is that Feedburner and similar services give detailed statistics about how many people subscribe and read the site feed.

3. Whichever publishing method you use, the site feed can be used as a proxy for an email list. One service that will do this is Feedblitz, which sends out notifications as new posts become available.