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RSS and Atom Feeds Explained

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A friend recently commented that there is a lot of great information available in blogs but who has the time to read them? Time is precious and in short supply.

RSS and Atom are designed to address this issue. They allow us to track more information in less time. Since they are extremely similar, we’ll focus on RSS. A “RSS feed” encapsulates what’s new in a blog or website, and an “aggregator” or “feed reader” lets a user easily and quickly check for new content of interest.

RSS stands for “Rich Site Summary” or “Really Simple Syndication,” and RSS is a format for summarizing new web content. A RSS feed will typically have a list of what’s new on a website. Each item has a title, a description, and a link to the website where the item appears. For a blog, the items will be the most recent posts. An item’s “description” might be its first paragraph or even the entire post. For example my blog’s RSS feed contains the title, first paragraph, and a link, for each of my last ten posts.

RSS is used not only by blogs but by traditional websites as well. For example, The New York Times, Reuters, Yahoo, The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, The US Department of State and The Washington Post all have RSS feeds. Many sites have multiple feeds, e.g. The New York Times has feeds for arts, automobiles, books, business, etc. which parallel their content. Even some retailer’s websites have RSS feeds that show what new merchandise they have.

There are many popular feed readers, including SharpReader, FeedDemon, and Feedreader, which are stand-alone applications, and Bloglines and My Yahoo!, which are webbased.

The following screenshot shows the Bloglines feedreader. On the left hand side we see the feeds that are subscribed to. The ones in bold have new items – changes we haven’t looked at yet. The number in parentheses that immediately follows each bold feed name is the number of new items. Displayed in the main screen is the blog Schneier on Security, which shows two new items.

 

Since many websites, including blogs, depend on advertising for revenue, advertisements are starting to appear in RSS feeds.

The following screenshot shows the popular Boing Boing blog viewed from Bloglines. Note the small advertisement for “Parts and Accessories for Harleydavidson” in the middle of the page. It’s actually part of the RSS feed!

 

This is a small look at RSS. RSS is more than just a mechanism to see what’s new on a website. RSS is a communication mechanism web sites can use to distribute content outside of browsers. It’s both a publishing channel for announcing changes of what’s new to users as we’ve seen, and a syndication channel which allows other sites to easily find and access new material.

RSS and Atom feeds are extremely common today in part because they are automatically implement by most blogging software. The use of feedreaders is not as common, but in the near future feedreaders will be as popular as email clients and web browsers are today.

 

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