last updated: 24 August 2018 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 1063 words)
RSS is a way to distribute your content beyond your website, automatically.
At its heart, RSS (really simple syndication) is machine readable data, presented in a structured format (XML). In other words, it’s a file (or files) created in a specified format. This file is then published (on a website) so that other may access the content.
The technology is dull—but what you can do with it is interesting. A practical example of how I use RSS may help to illustrate some of the benefits and some of the power of the tool.
RSS In Use
I am an author—I write books. Therefore, in my world, Amazon and Goodreads are important. I post my news on my website. These postings are infrequent, but—for me—they are important (often I’m announcing a new book, or similar).
Having posted a news article on my website, without any further action on my part:
- Amazon republish each new news article on my author page on Amazon.
- Goodreads republish each new news article on my Goodreads author page.
So one post on my website is then also shown—in full, and without requiring the viewer to click on any link—on Amazon and Goodreads. Instead the audience for that post being people who find and visit my website, it potentially becomes everyone who visits Amazon and Goodreads.
The link between me, Amazon, and Goodreads—and how the services find my new posts—is my RSS feed.
RSS As Was
For young people, blogs were what people did before social media. Instead of a having a profile on social media, people had their own website. On these websites, they posted articles which were then found in one of two ways. The first way that articles were found was when people visited websites and checked whether any new articles had been published.
This was rather a hit-or-miss approach, so instead people relied on aggregators. Aggregators worked very much in the same way that the stream on Twitter or Facebook works today. Through the aggregator you would subscribe to a number of websites and any new content would be presented to you in a single stream.
Behind these aggregators was the RSS feed. Rather than checking a website, the aggregators would look to the site’s RSS feed knowing this would be updated as and when a new post was published. In many ways, the key feature that made a blog into a blog rather than just a website was the RSS feed. And without an RSS feed, the aggregators wouldn’t know you existed, so people wouldn’t be able to subscribe for your updates.
Blog creation tools (such as WordPress) would handle all the messy technical aspects of creating the RSS feed—all you as the blogger then had to worry about was posting articles.
Today, people tend not to have personal websites and blogs, but instead rely on social media where the subscription process is a simple button click.
However, RSS survives and there are still some RSS aggregators, perhaps the most popular of which is Feedly.
While blogs and RSS aggregators have somewhat been assigned to history, RSS survives and still has many uses. The prime use—as noted with my example at the top of this piece—is to create content for one site and then to syndicate it to other outlets.
Beyond websites, other outlets where content can be sent include Twitter, Facebook, and email. However, when pumping content to other destinations, it is important to be mindful of the very different nature of how content is delivered in these services.
For instance, Twitter limits each post to 280 characters—pushing a several thousand word blog post into 280 characters simply won’t work. However, Twitter can work well to notify potential readers that you have published a new post.
Using RSS for emails brings some interesting options. Many email providers will subscribe to your RSS feed and then (depending on the email service provider):
- Any new post to your blog can be sent out to your mailing list as an email.
- Each week an email can be sent with a digest of all of the posts on your RSS feed for the last week.
Some destinations offer a direct connection, others require an interconnect such as IFTTT or Zapier to provide the necessary plumbing, but whatever you want to do, there’s probably a way to achieve it.
Filter and Blend
You can code a feed by hand, but there are probably better things to do with your time. Instead, any modern website building tool should have the facility to create some sort of feed.
But when you look at all the content you may create and all the potential destinations to which that content could be syndicated, it quickly becomes apparent that, unless you’re dealing with the simplest of approaches, you’re going to want to filter your output.
Most tools allow you to create many RSS feeds. With this option you can create a number of curated streams each of which may be directed to only one destination. The approaches to curation are as varied as the nature of the content you might want to curate, but simple options include creating a feed based on document type or, if you tag your documents, creating one RSS feed per keyword.
The key differentiator between “a podcast” and “just a bunch of audio files on a website” is the RSS feed.
A podcast RSS feed brings structure and presents information about the podcast—in particular about its episodes—to the podcast directories.
This sort of specialist feed is well beyond the scope of this note, but if you want to know more, Google provide some guidance about their requirements for podcast feeds.
Is There a Downside to RSS?
RSS does bring some challenges.
First, there is an element of futzing to get the feed (or feeds) set up. However, most website building tools make the mechanics of generating a feed an automatic process. But before the RSS feed can be automatically generated, you need to think a bit about curation and what content should be included in any one feed and/or how different elements of content should be incorporated into different feeds that are designed for different audiences.
The other downside with RSS is that you are creating a tool which makes it simple for other people—whether intentionally or unwittingly—to infringe your copyright without giving you appropriate credit.