If you frequent Weblogs, you've seen the little XML icons inviting you to "syndicate this site", but what does that really mean? A long time ago, newspaper managers realized that if they could use articles and stories from other newspapers in their paper, they could garner more readers because they could cover a wider area than they could with just their own reporters. This is an example of how syndication can work in print.
Online, there are potentially millions of authors writing about millions of topics each day. It can be very difficult to keep track of without some type of automated system. And that's where RSS comes in. Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is an easy way for Web sites to share headlines and stories from other sites. Web surfers can use sophisticated news readers to surf these headlines using RSS aggregators.
A Brief History of RSS
RSS was first invented by Netscape, when they were trying to get into the portal business. They wanted an XML format (RSS .90) that would be easy for them to get news stories and information from other sites and have them automatically added to their site. They then came out with RSS .91 and dropped it when they decided to get out of the portal business.
UserLand Software picked up RSS .91 and continued to develop it, coming out with .92, .93, and .94. At the same time as UserLand, a non-commercial group picked up RSS and developed RSS 1.0 based on their interpretation of the original principles of RSS. They based RSS 1.0 on RDF and re-named it RDF Site Summary. UserLand was not happy with RSS 1.0, and continued development of their version of RSS (Really Simple Syndication), eventually releasing RSS 2.0.
Which Version of RSS To Use
and Does It Matter?
For the purposes of this article, no it doesn't. If you were going to build your own aggregator or a program to read RSS feeds, you would care, but that's not the point of this article.
Here are the basics of RSS (no matter what the version) (view sample RSS - right click or click and hold to open in a new window):
- It is XML. This means it must be well-formed, include a prolog and DTD, and all elements must be closed.
- The first element in the document is the <rss> element. This includes a mandatory version attribute.
- The next element is the <channel> element. This is the main container for all RSS data.
- The <title> element is the title, either of the entire site (if it's at the top) or of the current item (if it's within an <item>).
- The <link> element indicates the URL of the Web page that corresponds to the RSS feed, or if it's within an <item>, the URL to that item.
- The <description> element describes the RSS feed or the item.
- The <item> element is the meat of the feed. These are all the headlines (<title>), URLs (<link>) and descriptions that will be in your feed.
Using those basic elements, you can create an RSS feed of your site. But it can get very tedious to create that feed manually every time you update your site. The best way to create an RSS feed is to use a tool, such as a Weblog, to create the headlines, links and descriptions for you automatically. I've listed my favorite blogging programs - all of which will create RSS for you along with the HTML for the blog.