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What is a RSS feed

Published: 18.11.2020

RSS is that term you hear and see a lot but never really bother to understand what it does. It is not a surprise, as it is a really easy concept to understand. Most people, like me, just briefly read about it on Wikipedia and don't go really deep into it. This article is aimed at people who want to learn more about it and see how they can utilize this simple technology.

Content


This article is inspired by my ex coworker Christian who requested this feature on my website 😊

What is a RSS feed?

Here is the definition from Wikipedia:

"RSS (RDF Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication) is a web feed that allows users and applications to access updates to websites in a standardized, computer-readable format."

Ok, so what does this mean? RSS feed is nothing more than an XML document formatted according to RSS standard. It can be served from any website like any other HTML page or any other resource (images, PDFs, MP4, etc.).

Ok, so, now we know what it is. But, what is it used for? Why is it useful? In essence, it can serve as a broadcasting mechanism for the content of your website. We will use a blog example here, but you can utilize RSS also for podcasts, news headlines, web shop products, torrents, etc. RSS feed can include some metadata about your content, like author, publishing date, but also short descriptions (excerpts) and/or full article content. This is a way of broadcasting your newly created content out to the world, or at least to the people who are listening (who are subscribed) to your RSS feed.

So, RSS feed is like your own mini transmitter antenna on your website for your own website content. RSS logo kind of symbolizes that. 📡

How does it look like?

So I mentioned XML files and you are like: HUH? What is that? Others, more experienced among you would be like: Man!!! That is dead technology. Well, yes, you are right. This technology is more than 20 years old. But, it works. And it works great. At least for my purposes.

So, what is XML? XML looks a lot like HTML, but it has a much stricter syntax. It is just another markup language standard and as such it looks a lot like HTML, or vice versa. Without going deeply into the differences between HTML and XML, lets just say that it is another way of formatting documents that are both machine readable and human readable.

If you visited the Wikipedia article above you will see this example:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" ?> <rss version="2.0"> <channel> <title>RSS Title</title> <description>This is an example of an RSS feed</description> <link>http://www.example.com/main.html</link> <copyright>2020 Example.com All rights reserved</copyright> <lastBuildDate>Mon, 06 Sep 2010 00:01:00 +0000 </lastBuildDate> <pubDate>Sun, 06 Sep 2009 16:20:00 +0000</pubDate> <ttl>1800</ttl> <item> <title>Example entry</title> <description>Here is some text containing an interesting description.</description> <link>http://www.example.com/blog/post/1</link> <guid isPermaLink="false">7bd204c6-1655-4c27-aeee-53f933c5395f</guid> <pubDate>Sun, 06 Sep 2009 16:20:00 +0000</pubDate> </item> </channel> </rss>

That is how a basic RSS feed looks like. There is not much else to it. Of course, you would have to generate one that has your site meta data and your site content. Usually, you won't do this by hand, but rather with a tool that automatically does it for you and the system you built your website with (WordPress, Gatsby, etc...).

If you are interested in the RSS standards and all other details I encourage you to visit the Wikipedia article I mentioned earlier.

RSS readers

We mentioned earlier how RSS is a web feed and how it is a way of broadcasting your content to whoever is listening. This "listening" can happen from another website or an app. So, they can get the content of your website (for example a blog post) without even visiting your website. They just need to know your RSS feed URL. This aggregation of data is what is called "web syndication" and it can be very useful.

Lets say you have dozens of blogs that you read regularly and you want to have a "notification" once the new content comes out. This is exactly what RSS feed is for. To be able to aggregate all of this data in one place, some smart people have created RSS feed readers. Those are websites and/or apps where you can add RSS feeds you want to follow. They format the data for you and present it in a nice UI. Plus a bunch of other features on top.

RSS feed readers used to be very popular in a pre social media era of the Internet. Nowadays your Facebook or Twitter feed is THE "RSS" feed you use. Do not get me wrong. I think that there is a certain value of the Facebook pages and twitter accounts that aggregate, select and share interesting content. However, it is rarely of good quality, and there is also this problem that everyone is sharing the same "hot" thing. Also, it has the tendency to get lost pretty quickly in your social media feed.

With RSS feed you do not have duplication and you can fully focus on just the content itself. I believe it is of great value NOT to be distracted by other non relevant stuff in this era of social media and creating content for the sake of creating content.

Another alternative to social media are newsletters. They are very important, but I believe they are better suited for other purposes. Newsletters also have some downsides in terms of ease of use. Although you can automate the process of sending a bunch of emails as soon as you release a new post, it is much simpler to do this with RSS feeds. Again, I am not making a point against email newsletters. They are a very powerful marketing tool, but for content syndication I believe that RSS feed concept is the best. This is what they were created for in the first place. Of course, there are some other competing technologies to RSS (namely Atom and JSON feeds), but the concept is still the same.

The 3 most popular RSS feed readers in my opinion are:

  1. Feedly
  2. Inoreader
  3. NewsBlur

I am personally using Inoreader and I love it. It is simple and works as expected.

Conclusion

Whether you are on board with what I said or not, RSS feed is still one of the best technologies for aggregating content. Of course, one can argue that there could be more sophisticated solutions, but for simple use cases (like blogs). I still believe RSS feed is the way to go. That being said, I think you should market yourself on social media and through newsletter as well. RSS feed is more for your returning audience. To let them know there is something new and interesting on your piece of the internet to check out.

So, if you haven't already, check my RSS feed and subscribe to it if you found any of my posts useful. Also, please help me reach wider audience by sharing on your social media of choice. 😎 Thank you!

What do you think about RSS feeds? Are you using them? Do you have some other opinion on this topic? I would love to hear from you. Let me know what you think through my contact form below.

P.S. While writing this blog I tried out a tool that a good friend and an initial Mentor of mine created. It is called 🚀 Quill.app. I enjoyed writing in it and I think it is a really cool app. It is currently in open beta, so grab yourself a free account and take your writing management to the next level.

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Dejan Kostevski

Dejan Kostevski is a self-taught Web Developer. His mission is to explain things in a simple but understandable way. During the years he has helped several Junior Developers kick start their careers, land an internship or a job or just in general get over the coding hurdle that they encountered.

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