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This is a blog from the Internet Development Team at ILRT, Bristol. We build websites and web applications for a wide variety of customers, many in the UK higher education sector. Continue reading…

RSS – what is it and what can I do with it?

This is the first of our posts giving you some information about internet-related technologies that you might find useful. This post is authored by Chris Bailey, who is one of our Web Developers / Researchers.

RSS: an overview

We thought we would begin with an article describing one of the most influential technologies for reading and syndicating news and information on the internet. That technology is RSS. Many of our clients have an interest in RSS, but would appreciate some more information – so here it is! In this article I will attempt to explain what RSS is, how it can be used and where this technology is going in the future.

I’ve heard this term RSS, so what is it?

Google's RSS Reader

RSS is the idea that anyone can subscribe to a constantly updated stream of information, that has been published on the internet. RSS Feeds, as they’re often called, list a number of articles. These articles could be derived from web pages, news stories, blog entries, video clips, radio programmes etc. As people create new content, the feeds are automatically updated with the details of the new items. If people subscribe to these feeds, they will receive updates when the new material is published. (I’ve added a screenshot of the RSS feeds I have subscribed to using Google’s RSS Reader. The feed in bold has five items waiting to be read.)

Today there is an almost endless supply of RSS feeds available. Any website that contains regularly updated information will often publish an RSS feed – just look for the RSS symbol RSS icon next to the page url in your browser (assuming you are using a modern browser). It will look a bit like this:

Browser URL bar showing RSS icon

How can RSS benefit me / my website?

One of the main benefits is that you don’t have to remember to visit other peoples websites to get their updated news and information (assuming they offer an RSS feed). Instead their information comes to you. So you needn’t miss out on what is happening.

Similarly, if you provide an RSS feed, it hooks people into your site by providing them with a headline or listing of your new information, as soon as it’s published. When they click on the headline, they will go straight to that article on your website.

Here are some examples of feeds you could subscribe to:

  • the latest BBC headlines
  • news and information produced by organisations in your field of work
  • find out what your friends are up to on Facebook
  • keep up to date with the latest events happening in your area
  • follow eBay auctions
  • keep track of delicious social bookmarking links
  • listen to your favourite radio programmes
  • keep up to date with blog postings such as this one

Podcasting (the syndication of radio/audio programmes) and Vodcasting (video podcasting) are really just fancy names for different types of RSS feeds.

How do I view an RSS feed?

The software used to subscribe to RSS feeds is usually called an RSS Reader. These will periodically check each feed and highlight any new items that appear.

An example of RSS feeds being read by the Thunderbird email client

An example of RSS feeds being read by Thunderbird email

There is a very good chance you already have an RSS Reader on your computer right now! Most modern web browsers such as Firefox, Internet Explorer or Safari can read RSS feeds. If you’d rather read your RSS feeds alongside your email, then email packages such as Outlook or the open source email reader Thunderbird allow you to subscribe to RSS feeds. You can also use online services to subscribe to RSS feeds. These are particularly useful if you need to keep up to date with information but often access the internet from different machines. I myself use Google’s Reader, however there are a number of other alternatives available. To subscribe using any of these means, you usually either click on the RSS icon whenever you see it in your browser (as described above), or cut-&-paste the url of the RSS feed into your reader (for example, the following link shows the BBC news feed in all its raw glory: http://newsrss.bbc.co.uk/rss/newsonline_uk_edition/front_page/rss.xml)

Other things you can do with RSS

Thanks to the XML format that RSS feeds are based on, they are very flexible entities. It’s very easy to pull a feed from one site and display it in another (assuming you have permission!). You can even embed them in your desktop if you wanted. If you have a delicious account, you could try using that to generate new RSS feeds. A hot new activity gaining momentum at the moment is called mashups whereby several different RSS sources are sorted, filtered and then merged to form a completely new RSS feed.

Nowadays a lot of websites provide RSS publishing capabilities out of the box. Here in the ILRT we use Plone to run a lot of our websites and this software can output RSS feeds from our clients’ websites. One powerful feature found in the latest version of Plone is the ability to convert searches into RSS feeds. In combination with the advanced search facility, this allows very specific queries to be performed (eg, show me all published news articles that talk about management and are written by a specific person). The results of this search can then be subscribed to using your favourite RSS reader so whenever a new article appears matching your search query, you get an update. Neat! Here is an example of a Plone RSS-enabled search result.

Example of Plone's RSS-enabled search results

This entry was posted on 20th January 2009 at 10:15 am and is filed under Briefings. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 comments

  1. Thanks – can you recommend any good sites to read further about RSS?

    Thank you
    Rufor

  2. Hi Rufor,

    There is plenty of material about RSS on the web. Wikipedia is (as usual) a good place to start.

    If your interested in RSS reader software, then try this list out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_feed_aggregators
    Which also has a sister page comparing each side by side.

    If your interested in the technology behind RSS, then you need to be aware that there are several different standards for content syndication: RSS 0.9, RSS 1, RSS 2.0 and Atom. Although they are all described using XML, each is different (for instance, Atom allows you to publish content as well as retrieve it).

    For a quick introduction, this article covers the basics of creating an XML RSS 2.0 feed: http://www.xul.fr/en-xml-rss.html

    For an overview of the differences between RSS 2.0 and Atom, view this page:
    http://www.intertwingly.net/wiki/pie/Rss20AndAtom10Compared

  3. RSS feeds are really great because you are always updated with the latest news or blog posts.”.-