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What is RSS?

RSS stands for "Really Simple Syndication". It is a way to easily distribute a list of headlines, update notices, and sometimes content to a wide number of people. It is used by computer programs that organize those headlines and notices for easy reading.It is a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated works—such as blog entries, news headlines, audio, and video—in a standardized format.[2] An RSS document (which is called a "feed", "web feed",[3] or "channel") includes full or summarized text, plus metadata such as publishing dates and authorship.

What problem does RSS solve?

Most people are interested in many websites whose content changes on an unpredictable schedule. Examples of such websites are news sites, community and religious organization information pages, product information pages, medical websites, and weblogs. Repeatedly checking each website to see if there is any new content can be very tedious.

RSS is a better way to be notified of new and changed content. Notifications of changes to multiple websites are handled easily, and the results are presented to you well organized and distinct from email.

How does RSS work?

RSS works by having the website author maintain a list of notifications on their website in a standard way. This list of notifications is called an "RSS Feed". People who are interested in finding out the latest headlines or changes can check this list. Special computer programs called "RSS aggregators" have been developed that automatically access the RSS feeds of websites you care about on your behalf and organize the results for you. (RSS feeds and aggregators are also sometimes called "RSS Channels" and "RSS Readers".)

Producing an RSS feed is very simple and hundreds of thousands of websites now provide this feature, including major news organizations like the New York Times, the BBC, and Reuters, as well as many weblogs.

What information does RSS provide?

RSS provides very basic information to do its notification. It is made up of a list of items presented in order from newest to oldest. Each item usually consists of a simple title describing the item along with a more complete description and a link to a web page with the actual information being described. Sometimes this description is the full information you want to read (such as the content of a weblog post) and sometimes it is just a summary.

For example, the RSS information for headlines on a local news website could contain the following information:

Item 1:
Title: Sidewalk contract awarded
Description: The city awarded the sidewalk contract to Smith Associates. This hotly contested deal is worth $1.2 million.
Link: http://www.xyz.com/contractawards/sidewalk.htm

Item 2:
Title: Governor to visit
Description: The governor is scheduled to visit the city on July 1st. This is the first visit since the election two years ago. The mayor is planning a big reception.
Link: http://www.xyz.com/news/2004/06/gov-visit.htm

The RSS information is placed into a single file on a website in a manner similar to normal web pages. However, the information is coded in the XML computer language for use by a program (the RSS aggregator) and not by a person like a normal web page.


How Easy Is RSS?

Sure, making an RSS file IS easy for many. If you understand HTML, you'll probably understand enough to do a cut-and-paste from someone else's RSS file to make your own file. Don't know HTML? Start a blog, because several blogging tools automatically generates RSS files.

As for those non-technical people using WYSIWYG page building tools or personal home page building systems, have faith. Even you can build an RSS file from scratch, as long as you dispense with some of the extra features you probably don't need.

The RSS File

At the heart of an RSS file are "items." No matter what version of RSS you settle on, your file will have to include at least one item. Items are generally web pages that you'd like others to link to. For example, let's say you just created a web page reviewing a new cell phone that's being released. Information about that page would form an item.

To enter your item into the RSS file, you'll need three bits of information:

* Title
* Description
* Link

The title and description of your item need not match exactly the HTML title tag of the web page that the item refers to, nor the meta description tag, assuming you use these. You can write any title and description that you think will describe the page. However, using your page's title and meta description tag certainly makes it easy to copy and paste to build your RSS feed.

RSS Syntax

RSS defines an XML grammar (a set of HTML-like tags) for sharing news. Each RSS text file contains both static information about your site, plus dynamic information about your new stories, all surrounded by matching start and end tags.

Each story is defined by an tag, which contains a headline TITLE, URL, and DESCRIPTION.

Each RSS channel can contain up to 15 items and is easily parsed using Perl or other open source software. If you want more details on creating RSS files see Jonathan Eisenzopf's excellent article in the February issue of Web Techniques

Saving The File

Now that we're done adding to the file, we need to save it. But what name shall we give it?
For our example, let's say we just call it feed.xml.

Now that our file is saved, we can place it anywhere we want on our web server. Let's say we put it in the root or home directory. Then the address to our RSS file would be:

http://xyz.com/feed.xml

Validating The File

Now our RSS file is done, but did we do it right? To find out, we need to validate it. Use the aptly named Feed Validator service. Simply enter the address to your RSS file, and you'll be told if everything is OK -- or if there's something wrong you need to fix.
The service will also generate a JavaScript code that you can post on your site. Anyone copying the JavaScript can automatically have your feed syndicated into their pages -- pretty neat!

How to: Read RSS feeds

RSS feeds bring automatically updated information straight to your desktop. You can monitor news, blogs, job listings, personals, and classifieds. More and more sites offer feeds, which you can identify by a small button that says either RSS or XML. However, if you click one of these links, you will most likely get a page full of code in your browser. To properly read the feed, you need an RSS reader.

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