RSS (partially) Demystified (Tech Made Simple)

Paul M. Foster (27 December 2010 05:16:43 Revised 27 December 2010 05:16:01)

I recently had a customer ask us about RSS in relation to his blog. I know next to nothing about RSS. So I decided the time had come to research it. As usual, I came across a lot of attempts to make it understandable by making it more obscure. (Yes, you read that right.) In order to save you some time, I'm going to try to summarize what I learned in what's hopefully a much simpler fashion.

First, the name, RSS. There are debates about what it stands for or should stand for. Who cares? It's RSS. That's all you have to know.

Second, what RSS is. RSS is a way for people to transmit news of a new blog posting, feature on their website, or whatever, to other people who might want to know about it, without having to send out an email every time it happens. For example, say you have a blog site like mine. And you want people to know you've just posted a new article. But you don't want to have to get on your email client and write a mass email to all (or selected) people in your address book letting them know. RSS can do it automatically. No need for facebook postings, twitter updates or whatever.

Now, here's where I get snagged every time. Because when I see a statement like the above, and I start doing research, the question I always want to know is how it works. And that's one of the things I had the hardest time finding out. So let me explain it to you in simple terms.

Let's look at this as a communication line. There's you, with your new blog post(s). Let's use unofficial terminology and call you the originator. Second, there's the recipient, the person who will ultimately receive the RSS notification of your new blog post. Third, there's a sinister component that may or may not exist between the originator and the recipient. This is called a variety of things, and the terminology becomes very confusing if you're doing research on it. This third part isn't required, but can be used from time to time. We'll call it the syndicator. It's not always called this, and sometimes it's called something else. But for our purposes, well call it that. A fourth part to this is something that's also sometimes called a "syndicator", but is more often referred to as an aggregator. This part sits on the recipient's end, and makes their job of receiving notifications easier.

On the originator end, you put out what's called an RSS feed. This is a file or a script that creates a file on your blog, which summarizes what you want people to know. The feed is ultimately an XML document in a special RSS format. There are a variety of formats available and understood. The top three are RSS 1.0 (fading in popularity), RSS 2.0 (the most popular) and Atom (the most flexible but most complex). You can research these if you like. Most blog software will generate this file for you. You can, if you're handy with XML and want to research how to do it, generate the file yourself. The problem with that scheme is this: an RSS feed gets updated every time you add a new blog post. Unless you want to have to hand-create this file newly every time to add a new blog post, you are advised to simply let the blog software do it for you.

What's in an RSS feed? Depends on the format you're using, but generally it will contain the name of the blog, the URL to the site, the author of the blog post, the category it fits in, the date of the post, a summary or except from the post and a link to read more.

Your next question might be how anyone knows you've had a new blog post, even if your blog software generates a new feed every time you add a post. The answer is that they don't unless someone or something pings your RSS feed. In other words, in order to know your RSS feed has changed, something or someone has to go ask your blog whether there's a new feed. That gets into the recipient end of the RSS transaction.

The recipient end is more complicated. A recipient has two major ways to get your RSS feed. They can go to your blog and look at the feed, or they can subscribe to it. Looking at your feed is a one-time affair. Once, and it's done. Subscribing is where the pinging comes in, and where continued future notifications of new posts comes in. First let me explain how just looking at your feed works.

Actually, the "looking" option is a kind of artificial example. The only way to do it is to actually go to your blog and click the link or the button for the RSS feed. It will usually be there somewhere. You've probably seen that squarish orange button which looks like the sound waves coming out of a speaker. That's the RSS feed button. Usually when pressing it, you can see exactly what the RSS feed would look like (in human readable terms) at the present time. This is an artificial example because if you're on someone's blog site, looking at their blog, there's no reason for you to look at their feed directly. You can just peruse their blog itself and know all you want to know. I include this example just for completeness.

Subscribing to someone's RSS feed can be done in a variety of ways. The simplest way involves using a relatively modern browser, like Internet Explorer, Firefox or Safari. If you're using one of these, you can simply go to the blog, click on the RSS feed link or button, and you will usually be asked if you want to subscribe to the feed. You may be asked if you want to subscribe via some other service, like Google, Bloglines, My Yahoo, etc. These are what I called "syndicators" earlier. Firefox also has a way to subscribe called "Live Bookmarks". I believe, but I'm not sure, that "Live Bookmarks" involves your browser checking the RSS feeds itself periodically, rather than going through a syndicator. When subscribing through your browser, the browser becomes what is called a "feed reader" or "aggregator". And when you use your browser this way, you view the various feeds you've subscribed to in your browser.

Also if you have a relatively modern browser, you can go through its menus and have it search for a feed, once you're on a blog site, and go through a process of specifying that you want to subscribe to the feed, according to whatever menus the browser displays. Same difference, really. It's still a subscription.

You don't have to view feeds (or subscribe) in your browser. You can do so using Google, or various other third party software which will perform the same function. You may not like the way your browser displays or organizes feeds, so you can search for something which does it in a way you prefer.

Now, about syndicators. A syndicator knows about a variety of feeds from various blogs, etc., and periodically checks them for new feeds, caching new content from the blogs it knows about. If you get your feed from a syndicator rather than directly from the site, then you're periodically (usually in the background) checking with the syndicator for new feeds. They, in turn send you their cached copies of feed content.

Syndicators can also be a kind of "search engine" for RSS feeds. This appears to be their main benefit at this point. If you're looking for feeds on 1950s Chevrolets, you can often search various syndicators for that kind of feed and subscribe to it. But there are a couple of caveats. First, syndicators don't automatically know about every blog in the world. They don't go out looking for new RSS feeds. Someone somewhere has to tell them about an RSS feed. And some of these syndicators want money to list a blog. And sometimes the process of telling them about a new RSS feed involves someone typing in almost all the information which would be in the RSS feed in the first place. If you want a syndicator to list a new RSS feed (yours or one you know about), you often have to create an account with them in order to do so.

To summarize this RSS feed "transaction" the way it typically goes, you publish an RSS feed from your blog (usually automatically) and provide a button or link to access it. That feed is updated automatically, every time you add a blog post. Subscribers periodically grab your latest feed either via their browsers, other aggregator or viewer software they use, or through a syndicator. Syndicators, once your feed has been registered with them, periodically grab your feed and cache its content, waiting for subscribers to grab feed content from them. Syndicators can be searched by potential subscribers for the type of content you create.

Okay, hopefully that's made this subject a little simpler. If you have questions or there's something I didn't make clear, feel free to comment.