What Is an RSS Feed?

By: Chris Pollette  | 
Lots of sites that publish regular information have their own RSS feeds, like Marshall Brain's BrainStuff weblog.
2008 HowStuffWorks

These days, most internet users access their favorite content via personalized social media sites. But, before everyone had a social media account, they had RSS readers. But what is an RSS feed, and are they still in used today?


An Introduction to RSS

Everyone has their favorite way to stay current on the constant flow of data called the Internet. But back in the day, keeping track of your favorite content was a real chore. It involved manually searching through blogs and news articles. That is, until the 1999 adoptions of RSS [source: Doree].

Short for Really Simple Syndication (at least now — more on that later), RSS was invented as a way to subscribe to a source of information, such as a Web site, and get content delivered to you.


These "sources of information" were called feeds. By subscribing, users get a feed — often a series of headlines and brief summaries — of all the articles published on that particular Web page. This lets them scan the articles on the page more efficiently. Sometimes they'd even spot more headlines that might never have seen buried on the original page.

Don't feel badly if you haven't heard of RSS — you may have already come into contact with it without knowing its name. Some Web-browsing software automatically detects RSS feeds. Firefox and Opera display the now-common square orange badge for a Web feed in the browser's address bar when they find RSS feeds on a site. You'll see a similar symbol in Internet Explorer's toolbar. Safari shows a blue rectangle with "RSS" written in white letters.

Those emblems show the presence of active RSS feeds on a site to help you get started. Click on one, though, and you'll get a list of options which may seem a little intimidating if you don't know what they mean.


What Is an RSS Reader?

NewsGator's FeedDemon aggregator software for Windows gives you many ways to sort and read news feeds.
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Reading RSS feeds can be a great time-saver. In the time it takes you to scan whole Web pages for information, you can find and upload your desired RSS feed URL and get headlines from dozens of sites all collected in one RSS reader app. On the other hand, the ease with which you can view RSS headlines may convince you that you can subscribe to even more sites. You may end up spending just as much time reading feeds as you used to on regular Web sites.

Reading feeds requires a few simple things, many of which you already have. You'll need a computer — or compatible electronic device — and an Internet connection. After that, you need something that can read, or aggregate, RSS files. By setting up and RSS feed reader, you can collect and interpret RSS feeds in one location. That way, you can see the latest headlines from HowStuffWorks, CNN, the BBC and Reuters, all in one place.


Do you want to see full articles on one page? Or do you just want the headlines? Do you want everything organized by date, with the feeds mixed by most recent, or would you prefer to keep each site separate? These are options that your aggregator will give you help you enjoy your reading.

Aggregators take many forms. When you use a current-generation Web browser to visit blogs or news sites, you'll probably see the square orange logo that indicates the presence of an RSS feed. Depending on what kind of site you're visiting, you may even see a link with a whole list of feeds. Once you click on a link to the feed, you'll get the option to subscribe. Different browsers handle feeds differently, but you'll probably be given a choice of options for handling the subscription.

Would you prefer to let your Web browser handle your RSS feeds? Some browsers let you read the feeds within the program itself. Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari are among the browsers that incorporate this feature. This gives you a couple of advantages: You don't have to switch programs when you want to catch up on your feed reading, and you don't have to switch back to your aggregator if you run across a great site which you'd like to follow.

There are disadvantages to using your browser, too, probably the most serious of which is that if you use more than one computer to access the Internet, you have no good way to synchronize your RSS feeds. If you take 15 minutes at lunch to catch up on the latest headlines at your desk, later on you'll be seeing some of the same headlines on your home computer.

Most personal start pages offer only a limited number of viewable items per feed, though you may have the option to see more. More than likely, these personalized pages will also group your feeds together by site. If you would prefer your feeds mixed together, for example with the newest items from all feeds on top, you will want to consider sites that serve as feed aggregators, such as Bloglines, Google Reader or Rojo. These sites will also give you the option to group feeds together. If you want your national news in one folder and your gardening blogs in a separate folder, you can do that.

Google Reader is one of many feed readers available on the Web.
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Of course, if it's features you want, you can use a software feed reader that will give you even more options. You can save some items for later, read articles offline, synchronize between different computers, the list goes on. There are drawbacks: It's not as convenient as reading feeds right in your browser, and there may be a cost involved. But if you like the special features and you read a lot of RSS feeds, it may be worth looking into.

RSS isn't really that different from a normal Web site. In fact, they're the same in one respect: Both are simple text files on Web servers. RSS uses the World Wide Web Consortium's Resource Description Framework (RDF) as a guide to tell a feed aggregator how to read the file. RDF is based on extensible markup language (XML), a cousin of hypertext markup language (HTML), which is the language used for everyday Web sites.

Unlike writing computer-programming code, most writing in a markup language like RDF involves putting tags around existing copy. For example, to make text bold in HTML, you would just enclose your sentence in a pair of tags: and . If you wanted to write the sentence "HTML is really great" in actual HTML, it would look like this:

HTML is really great.

The Web browser on your computer knows how to interpret these tags, because they're based on a set of industry-accepted standards. Like HTML, RSS is a standard that can be read by a variety of Web browsers and aggregators that display the feeds so they can be scanned easily.

Since RSS is based on XML, however, the document contains information that tells the aggregator where to look for the standard upon which it's based. It's an extra step that happens on the back end and is invisible to you as you view an RSS feed [source: Showers].

RSS tags tell your aggregator how to display the feed on your screen. In addition to the size of the font and other details, RSS tags also include the name of the creator of the feed, the date it was published, when the feed was updated and more useful information that helps you decide which articles to select from the feed and read in full.

So what happens if you want to add a new RSS feed to your existing blog? Many common blogging tools such as Blogger, Vox, Movable Type and WordPress have the ability to syndicate your weblog in RSS, without your having to learn how to write code. These weblog programs include everything needed to publish a feed: the address, title, meta and other necessary information are all included for you.

Of course, news organizations and other Web sites that publish with their own proprietary systems have to build RSS into their Web code. You can do this, too, though it will involve learning how to write a programming language. Then again, if you already know languages such as C#, you're probably the kind of person who would prefer to write your own feed.


The Current State of RSS Feeds

RSS feeds have played a pivotal role in the way users consume information on the internet. Born out of a need for a standardized form of content distribution, early RSS portals quickly became a staple for news aggregators, bloggers, and publishers alike.

Over the years, RSS has faced stiff competition from emerging technologies and changing habits, such as the rise of social media platforms and personalized content streams. Still, RSS feeds have remained relevant for those that prefer a decentralized and unfiltered approach to content.


RSS feeds still power podcast distributions, and help individuals follow their favorite websites without the clutter of social media. The technology continues to evolve too. It's legacy and continued use serves as a reminder of the value of user choice and an open internet.

Frequently Answered Questions

What does RSS mean?
RSS stands for "Real Simple Syndication" and refers to a web feed that allows users to access website updates in a standardized, computer-readable format.
Is RSS still used?
RSS is still used by many people as a way to keep up with their favorite online content. While the format has been eclipsed by social media in recent years, it remains a popular way to consume content for many users.
What is RSS and how do you use it?
RSS is a format for syndicating news and the content of news-like sites, including major news sites like Wired, Rediff, and News.com, as well as personal weblogs. RSS feeds provide web users with a summary of content from sites they are interested in and allow them to easily stay up-to-date on all the latest news.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • "Introduction to RSS." Webreference.com. Apr. 21, 2008. http://www.webreference.com/authoring/languages/xml/rss/intro/
  • Resource Description Framework. Whatis.com. Apr. 24, 2008. http://searchsoa.techtarget.com/sDefinition/0,,sid26_gci213545,00.html
  • RSS. Whatis.com. Apr. 24, 2008. http://searchwindevelopment.techtarget.com/sDefinition/0,,sid8_gci813358,00.html
  • RSS 2.0 at Harvard Law. Apr. 24, 2008. http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/rss/rssVersionHistory.html
  • "RSS 2.0 and Atom 1.0 Compared." Sam Ruby. Apr. 25, 2008. http://www.intertwingly.net/wiki/pie/Rss20AndAtom10Compared
  • "What's in a Name -- RSS or Feeds?" ReadWriteWeb. Aug. 10, 2005. Apr. 25, 2008. http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/whats_in_a_name.php