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2007-10-15 15:50:00

Is Really Simple Syndication (RSS) Really All That Simple?

Hector Virgen says, "RSS is really simple ... don't listen to the voices telling you that it is not!"Learn all about RSS and what it means to you with these frequently asked questions and answers. These questions are ordered by popularity, with the most common question on top.

1.  What is RSS?

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. If it really was “really simple,” you probably wouldn’t be reading this guide. But hey, I didn’t name it.

RSS, in a nutshell, is a widely used method of delivering the latest web site updates directly to you without cluttering your e-mail inbox.

2.  Why do I need RSS?

No one really needs RSS, per se. But used wisely, RSS can help save you time while also making you look cool among your co-workers. But to help demonstrate why RSS feeds are better than a chimpanzee in a barrel, I’ll use the newspaper analogy.

Let’s say you like reading the local newspaper. There are currently several ways to get your newspaper on a daily basis. You can get off your rump and walk down to the nearest coffee shop and sit down with the daily news, or you can have the newspaper (and potentially your coffee, too) delivered daily by an underpaid 13-year old (also known as a "paperboy"). Both of these methods are completely valid and surprisingly legal. But which method is better?

If you were to choose the first method, then that means you have to do the required work. You have to get up off your rump. You have to walk to the coffee shop. You have to find the newspaper stand and select the copy immediately under the very top copy. But you know there will be days when you don’t have time, or you don’t feel like walking, or you paid some 13-year old to bring you your coffee (negating the real need to hit up the coffee shop). So you may not get every single newspaper. You may miss a day or two or 10. Maybe after a month you realize you can live perfectly fine without reading about the weather right outside your door.

But if you had your newspaper delivered, every day, on time (usually) by the same 13-year old that you conveniently “forget” to tip, then you won’t miss a day or two or ten. You’ll get your newspaper and read about the weather whether you want to or not.

That 13-year old kid is the RSS feed (minus the pimples). But if all he did was deliver a newspaper and some lukewarm coffee, it wouldn’t be all that big of a deal. But let’s say this kid says, “Hey, not only can I deliver you your newspaper and luke-warm coffee, but I can also pick up all your favorite magazine subscriptions and bring those, too, for no extra charge. Whadda ya say?” You’d probably think the kid is nuts, but nevertheless take him up on his offer. So now he brings you your newspaper, Time Magazine, Newsweek, People, Bop and whatever it is you decide you want him to deliver. Now THAT is why you want an RSS feed (or an underpaid 13-year old kid).

Once you configure your RSS reader to deliver the feeds that you want to read, you can launch your reader and browse through all of the latest updates from all of your favorite web sites from within a single application without having to visit each one of those web sites separately. It’s like getting all of your favorite magazines delivered to your door without having to go to each magazine stand separately every single day.

3.  How do I use an RSS feed?

You’ll need an RSS reader to read your RSS feeds. It can come in the form of an application (such as SharpReader: or as a tool on a web site (such as MyRealTown You add your selected feeds (given out by the website) and the reader will download all the latest news from the web sites and display them to you. Most readers will give you a preview pane of sorts that will allow you to preview the content from the website within the reader itself. But at minimum you’ll at least be given the titles of the feed items.

4.  How does RSS work?

RSS is built using XML (eXtensible Markup Language). It contains information about the feed, such as the title of the feed and which web site it belongs to. It also contains the latest web site updates in the form of items. An RSS feed can have as many items as it wants, but its up to the RSS reader to determine how many it will show to you (most of them will show all of the available items). Each item has information about it like the title and a URL. Optionally, the item can contain a description, the full contents of the news item, and the date of the item.

5.  So, again, why RSS? Aren’t there other ways to subscribe to a web site?

The old-school method of subscribing to a web site was to subscribe by e-mail. Any time the web site made a change, you were sent an e-mail with the change and a link to view the change. This sounds neat until you’re subscribed to several web sites and begin getting flooded with e-mails. Also, this method can be difficult for the web site to maintain. They would have to keep a database of e-mail addresses of their subscribers, and know which page(s) they subscribed to, and also be able to unsubscribe them on command. Plus, they have to validate e-mail addresses, be prepared for bounce-backs and autoresponders, and keep their e-mail servers in top-notch shape to send notifications to hundreds of thousands of subscribers for each and every web site change.

RSS puts the subscriber in total control over the subscription. To subscribe, just add the feed to your RSS reader. To check for updates, simply launch your RSS reader. To unsubscribe, remove the feed from your RSS reader. At no time do you ever have to provide your e-mail address, or “submit” for a subscription, or “submit” to be removed from the subscriptions list. This also makes it much easier for the web-site to maintain because they don’t have to push out update notifications because update notifications are only sent on demand of the subscriber (by launching their RSS reader).

6.  I don’t like RSS. It’s too hard to pronounce. Are there any alternatives to RSS?

Yes, there are other (and often superior) alternatives to RSS such as ATOM, and most RSS readers will also support other formats. However, RSS is still the most widely used syndication format and usually provides all the syndication functionality we need.

(Hector Virgen is Manager of the RealTown Tech Team, including the Blog Team.)

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