RSS Explained

by: Copyright 2004 Mark Daoust

A lot of fuss has been made over RSS and the vast benefits it can bring to webmasters on both ends of the RSS syndication.

However, a lot of webmasters have absolutely no idea how to create an RSS feed or how they can incorporate an RSS feed on their website.

A tool is not very useful if you do not know how to use it. It is with this motivation that this article is written, to give you a basic enough understanding of how you can both create an RSS feed and how you can incorporate an RSS feed into your website.

First, we will look at what RSS really is. Secondly, we will explain how you can create your own RSS feed. Finally, we will look at how you incorporate RSS feeds into your website.

What is RSS?

To understand RSS (Rich Site Summary), you must be in the correct mindset. Think about the types of websites that offer RSS feeds. First, there are the news and article related websites. These make up the majority of the websites who use RSS. There are also forums, web portals, search engines, and news aggregators, to name a few. The one thing all these types of websites have in common is that they are all filled with a lot of information. Organizing this information is the difficult part, and organizing it in a way that others can syndicate and customize the format is even more difficult. Enter RSS.

RSS organizes information within tags or labels and places this information into what could be considered an outline format. If you think about it, all information can be organized into separate parts. As an example, an article website is made up of articles. Each article can be considered its own part of the site. Within each article there are parts as well, such as the title of the article, a description of the article, the date the article was published, who wrote the article, and so on. What RSS does is to present these parts in a uniform, organized format.

RSS organizes information the same way every time. An RSS feed can be broken down into a few parts. First RSS presents the header information such as the XML version and various comments. This is more for the computers than it is for the readers. Next RSS presents information about the website. The information presented here can vary, but typically there will be the name of the site, a link to the site, the webmaster s e-mail address, and maybe the last time the feed was updated. The next part to an RSS feed is the actual content of the feed.

To understand more about how RSS organizes information, it would be useful to see how an RSS feed is published. Even if you have no intention on publishing a feed, you should read the next section.

Publishing an RSS Feed

Because RSS is focused on organizing content, creating an RSS feed is fairly easy to do. The below example is extremely simplified. RSS has quite a bit more flexibility than is demonstrated here, but for most webmasters a basic RSS feed is all that is needed.

An RSS feed can be broken up into a few simple parts. Similar to regular HTML, the first part of an RSS feed is the header information. A sample RSS header is located below:

    [code]
    < ?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1" ?>
    <!-- Publishing tool used -->
    <rss version="0.91">
    [/code]
The header is normally the same from feed to feed. There are only two things you need to make note of here, the Publishing tool used line and the RSS version line. The second line, which reads Publishing tool used is actually just a comment line. It is a good idea to label your work, so you may want to label it MySite.com Auto RSS Generator or something to the same effect.

The second thing to note is the RSS version number. There are actually seven different RSS versions. When wondering what version you should use, chances are very good that RSS 0.91 will suit your needs just fine. This is the simplest version available and it seems to cover just about every basic publisher s needs.

After the header comes the actual content. All of the content is surrounded by channel tags. Below is a snippet of an RSS feed that contains just two stories:

    [code]
    <channel>
    <title>Website Title, or Title of Section On Your Site</title>
    <link>http://www.yoursite.com/</link>
    <description>A short description of what your website is</description>
    <webmaster>Who is the webmaster of your site?</webmaster>
    <language>en-us</language>
    <item>
    <title>Title of the first story that we are focusing on</title>
    <link>http://www.yoursite.com/directlinktoarticle.html</link>
    <author>Author s Name</author>
    <date>The date the article was published</date>
    <description>This is the description of my article</description>
    </item>
    <item>
    <title>The title of the second article</title>
    <link>http://www.yoursite.com/directlinktootherarticle.htm</link>
    <author>Author s Name</author>
    <data>Date Published</data>
    <description>This description will describe the second article.</description>
    </item>
    </channel>
    [/code]
You can see that the channel tags surround everything.

Within the channel tags lies the content being syndicated. We have the title of the site, the site description, a place for a webmaster s e-mail address, and the language that the site is in. You can add more tags if you like. For example, if you want to include information on when the feed was last updated, you might include a tag called lastUpdate . Whatever information you want to give those who are syndicating your content, you can give them.

After this information are the item tags. The item tags allow you to separate the content being syndicated. In this example, the item tags separate each article. If you were a search engine, you would separate your listings with the item tag. Again, think about this in the most basic sense. Each item tag separates items.

Within the item tags is the bread and butter of your RSS feed. In the above example, each item tag separates an article, or story. Within the item tag, we have more tags which identify the title of the article, a link to the full article, the article s author, the date published, and a description of the article. Again, you could include more information or less information depending on what your goals are.

There is one final step to create your RSS feed: closing all your tags. RSS is very picky about open tags. So, when creating your RSS feed, make sure you close the RSS tag that we opened back in the header:

    [code]
    </rss>
    [/code]
Now simply save this information as an XML document and you will have a valid RSS feed! You can actually save the document with any file extension you like, but it will not show up as a nice looking XML document in your browser unless you save it as .xml. So, to close this part of the article, the final sample RSS feed looks like the following:
    [code]
    <?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1" ?>
    <!-- Publishing tool used -->
    <rss version="0.91">
    <channel>
    <title>Website Title, or Title of Section On Your Site</title>
    <link>http://www.yoursite.com/</link>
    <description>A short description of what your website is</description>
    <webmaster>Who is the webmaster of your site?</webmaster>
    <language>en-us</language>
    <item>
    <title>Title of the first story that we are focusing on</title>
    <link>http://www.yoursite.com/directlinktoarticle.html</link>
    <author>Author s Name</author>
    <date>The date the article was published</date>
    <description>This is the description of my article</description>
    </item>
    <item>
    <title>The title of the second article</title>
    <link>http://www.yoursite.com/directlinktootherarticle.htm</link>
    <author>Author s Name</author>
    <data>Date Published</data>
    <description>This description will describe the second article.</description>
    </item>
    </channel>
    </rss>
    [/code]
Putting an RSS Feed on Your Website

Why would any webmaster choose an RSS feed over a JavaScript, iFrame, PHP, or other type of feed? The answer is simply flexibility. With an RSS feed, you can take the content, arrange it how you want, make it fit the exact look and feel of your website, and control how much or how little information you are displaying on your website. And, unlike JavaScript, search engines will be able to read the content you are displaying on your site.

But how, exactly, does one take the content that is formatted to the RSS feed and turn that into workable HTML on your site? There is no other way than to parse the information using some programming code. Now, if you are not a programmer, do not be afraid by this. Because RSS is so well organized, converting information from an RSS feed to HTML is actually very simple.

The first way is to use an RSS parsing script. To find a good script that does this, just go to http://www.hotscripts.com, or any other script repository, choose the language that you are most comfortable with and look under the XML section. This will probably be the option that most webmasters end up taking. Because of many webmaster s unfamiliarity with programming languages, pre-written scripts are a good way to get that RSS feed on your website.

If you are feeling more adventurous, you can attempt to parse the RSS feed on your own. Although this may sound like a daunting task, it is actually a lot easier than it seems. Remember, RSS was developed to organize information. Because RSS presents you with information already organized into constant, recognizable tags, pulling information out of an RSS feed becomes highly simplified. Even better, parsing RSS feeds is a topic that many articles have been written on. You should be able to find an example written somewhere that you can fairly easily apply.

Many webmasters do not have any knowledge of programming at all and do not feel comfortable installing scripts or writing their own parsing scripts. Although it is highly encouraged that all webmasters learn to not fear programming languages such as PHP or ASP, you always have the option to hire a programmer to write a quick RSS parser for you. In all reality, if your requirements are simple, an RSS feed parser should take an experienced programmer no time at all to write. You should not have to pay much to have this done for you.

RSS: Useful for Both Distributor s and Publisher s

As a webmaster, you should not be afraid to use RSS. If you have a lot of information, or if you have information that quickly changes, RSS will allow you to syndicate that information. There is definite viral marketing value in providing an RSS feed. If you want to incorporate information from another website, an RSS feed offers that information in a highly organized fashion allowing you to easily translate that information into the format that you want.

RSS places both your information at the fingertips of thousands across the web and gives you access to the web s best content. Because of the many benefits of RSS for both information distributor s and publisher s, expect to see RSS stick around for quite some time.

Discuss this topic further at http://forums.site-reference.com

Mark Daoust is the owner of Site Reference (http://www.site-reference.com) Marketing Articles. Thousands of marketing articles along with marketing resources and marketing forums are available.