RSS: the basics

Ok, enough head-in-the-clouds talk for now, let’s have some more specifics. Call it a temporary New Year’s Resolution.

In my next few posts, I’ll be giving a simple guide to some new technologies and ideas to hit the KM field recently. They won’t be news to some, but I hope they’ll be of interest to others.

What is RSS?

Stands for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary - it depends who you ask. Think of it as a distributable "What's New" for your site. You may have seen the orange XML button on various sites – this is the language that RSS is written in. (Why doesn’t it just say RSS? Don’t ask me…) Clicking on it will display an RSS feed.

Today’s web browsers don’t really understand RSS feeds yet so it will look pretty unintelligible - but by using an aggregator, you’ll be able to see all the new content on all of your subscribed RSS feeds. No need now to trawl round 50 sites to see what, if anything, has changed.

Obviously this is ideal for news sites and weblogs, which operate very much on the basis of individual articles. However, pretty much anything that can be broken down into discrete items can be syndicated via RSS: the "recent changes" page of a corporate website, revision histories of a book, latest releases on iTunes, even web comics.

How to start

  1. Download or sign up to a news aggregator. They are almost all free.

  2. Find some RSS feeds - some starters are given below. See if your favourite websites have the orange XML button, or a link saying ‘RSS version’ or ‘Syndicate this site’. You’ll know when you’ve found it because the page will display a lot of computer code, and the address in the browser will end in .xml.

  3. Copy this address.

  4. Paste it into your news aggregator and save your changes.

Hey presto! Whenever you sign in to your aggregator in future, it will tell you when this site has been updated and with what content.

RSS v Email newsletters

Of course we're always looking for the Next Big Thing and there seems to be a temptation to write off previous solutions as old hat. In this instance, the technorati are falling over themselves to denounce email newsletters and hail RSS as the new king of e-busness.

One can see why, to an extent. Email newsletters give the power to the company. Sign up for one and you are at the mercy of the editor: the content and the publication frequency are beyond your control. Email is seen as a very personal medium and many of us are beginning to regret losing control of our inboxes.

In contrast, RSS gives the power back to the user. If they want to find out about new products in your ‘Epsilon’ line, they can sign up to the RSS feed you’ve set up for that product. This will be automatically updated whenever you update your site and hence interested customers will automatically informed. You don’t need to send out a duplicate newsletter, or hope that interested parties will just stumble across your page. Nice eh?

I think it’s no exaggeration to say that RSS is the future, but it's far too early to write off email newsletters. The best ones are going from strength to strength and RSS still has a number of problems that are preventing it from reaching the mainstream.

Problems with RSS

RSS allows users to view content without advertising. Yes, you heard me right – this is a problem. Remember that the web is primarily funded by advertisers. 69% of users now use some kind of pop-up blocker – combine this with RSS’s content-only delivery and you have to wonder just how much longer advertisers will continue to hang around, and what the consequences will be for the web.

It’s also still rather technical and non-standard, meaning only a few users will have the IT literacy or the inclination to explore the possibilities. Usability will, of course, improve – after all, the web was very much like this in its infancy. For instance, the excellent new Firefox browser has a user-friendly RSS syndication feature built in as standard.

Related articles

RSS described in plain English
RSS tutorial for content publishers and webmasters 
Why RSS is not ready for prime time

News aggregators


Some RSS feeds

Boing Boing
This page
iTunes RSS feed generator

Also of interest


Cennydd Bowles