How RSS Works


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

The trouble with living in the Information Age is paradoxical: There's too much information. It's everywhere. How are you supposed to keep track of all the news, sports, weather and blogs you follow? Better yet, how are you going to do that and find time for work, school and family?

If you're addicted to the constant flow of data that we know as the Internet, you're not going to be able to manage it without some help. One way to keep track of it all has grown very popular since its introduction in 1997: RSS. Short for Really Simple Syndication (at least now -- more on that later), RSS is a way to subscribe to a source of information, such as a Web site, and get brief updates delivered to you.

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These sources are called feeds. When you subscribe, you'll get a feed -- often a series of headlines and brief summaries -- of all the articles published on that particular Web page. This lets you scan the articles on the page more efficiently. Sometimes you'll even spot more headlines that you 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. Some sites have multiple feeds for the same page with different versions of RSS or a competing standard, Atom. To which should you subscribe? When you choose one of them, what happens next?

Don't get discouraged and quit, though -- once you learn how to use news feeds, you'll save time by scanning headlines from your favorite sites. On the next page, we'll take a look at how the format got its start and what it was designed to do. Before long, you'll have all the information you could ever read. And then some.

RSS Reader

NewsGator's FeedDemon aggregator software for Windows gives you many ways to sort and read news feeds.
NewsGator's FeedDemon aggregator software for Windows gives you many ways to sort and read news feeds.
HowStuffWorks.com screenshot

Reading RSS feeds can be a great time-saver. In the time it takes you to scan whole Web pages for information, you can review headlines from dozens of sites all collected in one place. 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. Aggregators 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.

The popularity of RSS feeds has encouraged companies that offer personal home pages, such as Yahoo! and Google, to incorporate feed readers into their products. If you have a MyYahoo! or iGoogle page, you can add your feeds there. Whether you read at home or at work, you'll be receiving the same information.

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. Google Reader is one of many feed readers available on the Web.
Google Reader is one of many feed readers available on the Web.
HowStuffWorks.com screenshot

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.

Do you have a Web site? It's easy to put a feed on the Web. On the next page, we'll take a look at what you'll need if you want to start publishing your own RSS feed.

Creating RSS Feeds

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.

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 an 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.

For more information about RSS feeds, the World Wide Web and related topics, visit the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • "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