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RSS and your site

Syndicate your content - this could change how we use the web

Little orange buttons marked 'RSS' are starting to appear on all kinds of websites. But what is RSS, and why should it feature in your website plans? bCentral's Simon Dickson looks at the latest web technology to go mainstream.

Ten years ago, when people asked me how I saw the future of the web, my standard response was that it was here to stay - but it would probably look very different. Wrong. Producers and consumers have got smarter in how they use the medium, but the average user's experience of using the web hasn't changed much in the last few years.

Then came RSS, generally taken to stand for 'really simple syndication' - although that's not a very helpful name for what it has become. It really will transform the way you use the web, letting you stay in touch with all your favourite websites without having to surf them every day. If you're looking for a solution to information overload, this could be it.

Its more passionate advocates say it will replace email newsletters. It is already changing the way people search the web and read their email. Yet the technology involved is remarkably simple, and the costs couldn't be lower.

Keep track

RSS came to prominence with the growth of blogs - the personal 'diary' websites which have gradually found their way into the mainstream media. Unlike a newspaper, for example, you can't rely on a diary to be updated on a consistent basis. Some days you have something to say, some days you don't. So you can't really expect people to keep hitting your website on the off-chance that you've updated it.

Quote�You can't expect people to keep hitting your website on the off-chance you've updated it.�End Quote

Blogging tools began offering RSS as a way to keep track of updates, generating RSS feeds as part of their standard functionality. Using a special piece of RSS-reading software, or a website like Bloglines, you could store the details of the blogs you wanted to keep an eye on. Then, each time there was a new item on that blog, you would get an 'unread message' alert, just as you would with your email.

News websites soon realised that RSS feeds could bring similar benefits for their millions of readers. The BBC, for example, offers dozens of feeds from its site. On most of its section homepages you'll see a little orange 'RSS' button, telling you that you can follow updates to the page using an RSS feed.

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If you've ever clicked on those orange buttons, you probably saw a screen of nasty-looking XML computer code, and hastily pressed the 'Back' button. In fact, the code is relatively straightforward.

Quote�You see the same model everywhere on the internet - getting started is straightforward.�End Quote

The top few lines of the feed usually define what it is, and where it came from. As you scroll down, you'll see a repeating pattern. Each time a new article is added to the website, a new 'item' is created in the RSS feed. Each item has a 'title', a 'description' and a 'link'. In fact, you see this same model everywhere on the internet - think of a page of search results, for example.

Your RSS reader will download the feed every so often, and will check if there are any new items which you haven't looked at yet. Like in your email software, you'll see a count of the 'unread messages' in each feed; you might also get a sound alert, or a popup box in the corner of your screen. If you read the description of an item, and you're interested in reading the rest, a link will take you to the website where you can read the full text.

Profile boost

The final piece in the RSS jigsaw is the inclusion of RSS functionality in common internet software programs. Alternative web browsers like Opera and Firefox have been able to handle RSS feeds for some time, but their user bases are relatively limited. With Microsoft's new version of Internet Explorer joining the RSS party, it's safe to assume that the technology's profile is set for a substantial boost.

Quote�Should you think about offering an RSS feed? The simple answer is 'yes'. The technical work is minimal.�End Quote

Should you think about offering an RSS feed on your website? If you add new material on a regular basis, maybe press releases or special offers, then the simple answer is 'yes'. The technical work involved in setting one up is minimal, and if you use some kind of content management system, it can probably be updated automatically. There shouldn't be any running costs beyond your normal website arrangement.

You may not see a huge difference in how people use your website, not yet anyway. But it's a fairly safe bet that RSS is here to stay, and it will reflect well on your company if you're seen to adopt it early.

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