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What Is RSS and Atom? RSS 101: Understanding The Feed Monsters

| May 24, 2007 | 5 Replies

RSS is an acronym for Really Simple Syndication.  One of it’s earlier standards also referred to it as Rich Site Summary; either description is now used interchangeably.  Syndication can be defined as sharing information or the distribution and extension of data.  So, in a nut shell, RSS is a standard that allows us to easily and quickly share frequently updated data to, literally, millions of people over the Internet.

There is another variant of this type of syndication known as the Atom Syndication Format -Atom for short, and is another very similar type of syndication standard.  For the purposes of this article, I will be referring to RSS feeds specifically, but the Atom Style Feed works very similarly and virtually everything that can be done with an RSS feed can also be done with an Atom Feed.

So what is an RSS FEED? An RSS Feed in it’s basic format is a “table of contents” for the information appearing on your website.  It contains a text list (formatted in XML) of the headlines and titles of your posts or articles and will contain either a brief or full summary of your writings.  The feed will contain direct clickable links to your articles or posts.  The RSS feed may also contain media elements such as pictures.

Many users of the Internet are not aware of the proliferation of the large amount of RSS feeds found scattered all over the Internet.  This is due in part to the nature of the RSS feed and, until recently, the inability of web browsers to interpret them properly.   A couple of common terms used in conjunction with RSS feeds are “subscribe” and “subscriptions”.  When you “subscribe” to an RSS feed you are making a connection to the RSS feed that will allow you to be notified and obtain updates of newly created postings almost as soon as they are published.  This is one of the reasons for the success and universal adoption of the RSS Feed phenomena.

Almost every new version of the various web browsers available today offer some way to subscribe to an RSS feed. To test if your browser can interpret (or read) an RSS feed correctly, click on the following link http://www.mustech.net/feed (will open a new window).  If your browser is able to interpret the RSS feed correctly, you will see a very nicely formatted window with clickable links.  If it is not able to correctly interpret the RSS Feed, you will see a mass of squashed together text usually with the words xml version at the front of it.  When you are able to view the XML RSS Feed correctly, you are using what is known as a FEED READER.

As I stated earlier in the article, most web browsers contain the ability to be a FEED READER built-in now.  However, there are other ways to read a RSS Feed that include offline software.  One of the very best free RSS/ATOM offline readers available today is the CITA RSS Reader (Works on all Microsoft Platforms up to Vista: Mac users please let me know what you use).  CITA RSS Reader is also an RSS AGGREGATOR.  This is a really fancy term for an RSS Reader that is able to pull in multiple RSS Feeds, from different sources (websites) and present all of them to you within one interface.

Many times you will find of a web site that is referred to as an “Online RSS AGGREGATOR”, these sites simply pull in content from multiple RSS Feeds and repost their data in a chronological order.  My website, Musicednews.com is an Online RSS AGGREGATOR and is supplying Music Education related information to a multitude of sites.

Creating your own RSS Feed(s) is much simpler than it was a couple of years ago when many people manually inputted their text into the RSS XML format.  Almost all blogging programs, such as WordPress, have an RSS FEEED GENERATOR built-in to them that requires the end-user to do nothing to generate their RSS Feed.  With WordPress sites, the automatically generated feed can almost always be found by typing “/feed” after the URL of the site.  For example, http://www.mustech.net/feed will bring you to the generated feed of this site (please note that I am doing some fairly “fancy” things with the feed found here and it will appear different than that found on other WordPress sites).

There are also a number of software programs available that will allow you to generate a feed without having knowledge of XML.  Almost everyone uses these type of software programs today to generate their RSS feeds.  Personally, I use RSS BUILDER, which is a very easy to use, free, RSS GENERATOR.

I am going to briefly mention FEEDBURNER in this article as well.  If you are going to use a RSS Feed for the dissemination of information for your site, I suggest you take the time to learn about the amazing free services offered by FeedBurner.  With them, you can easily add a number of features to your site (included the integration of FLICKR photos, DIGG and social bookmarking items), increase compatibility across multiple O/S platforms and browsers as well as track your subscribers.  In my opinion, this service is a “must” for anyone utilizing RSS feeds.

There are so many ways to subscribe to an RSS feed, that it would take volumes to cover them all.  Since Google recently acquired FeedBurner, I thought it appropriate to end with a quick tutorial using iGoogle as a platform to subscribe to an RSS Feed.  Additionally, since iGoogle is compatible with all browsers and all operating systems everyone should be able to perform/follow this tutorial.

The iGoogle RSS Adding Tutorial:

Step 1.
Go to www.igoogle.com and click on the iGoogle link in the upper right hand corner. You should see the following after you click on the iGoogle link.

iGoogle Page

Step 2.
If you already have a Google/Gmail account you can sign in and Google remember everything you do with this tutorial.  Or you can click on the “Make it your own” link. Either way you have to do one of the above before we can continue on (iGoogle will remember what you do regardless of registering, provided you don’t clear your browswers cache).

Step 3.
Assuming you chose the “Make it your own” link, you will see a number of items checked and a button that states: “Show my page”,  Click it.

show my page igoogle
Step 4.
Click on “Add Stuff”, located in the upper middle right of the screen.

add stuff iGoogle

Step 5.
The easiest and fastest way to add a Feed with iGoogle is to click the “Add by URL” link located directly to the right of the search line.

add feed by url iGoogle

Step 6.
Insert the direct URL of the link that points to the RSS Feed your are trying to add in the “Add by URL Box” that appears.  For this example and tutorial use this URL: http://www.mustech.net/feed

music technology education mustech.net feed iGoogle

Step 7.
If you entered the RSS Feed URL correctly, you will see the following in the dialog box: “Added: http://www.mustech.net/feed” with a check mark in front of it.  Now, click on the “Close” link and click on the link “Back to Homepage” located in the upper left of the page, right above the iGoogle logo.

Step 8.
You will now see a new “gadget” on your homepage with the title of the RSS Feed and a number of postings/articles from it.  Notice the “down arrow button” to the left of the X (close) button.

iGoogle mustech.net gadget

Step 9.
Click on the “down arrow button” to edit the settings of this RSS gadget. To show more postings, change the number “3” to “7” items and then press the “save” button. You will now see 7 items listed instead of the original 3.

rss igoogle final music technology education

Step 10.
Repeat the above process to add more RSS/Atom feeds.

Please note: any time that you see the following graphics they are indicating either a RSS Feed is present or the information you are reading is from a RSS feed.  The symbols can indicate either type of feed, RSS or Atom; However, I am seeing more of a distinction now between the colors of the symbol with orange being universal or RSS and blue designating Atom feeds only.

rss picture   Atom Feed

If you have any questions or thoughts about this article and RSS/Atom feeds, please feel free to send us a comment.  This article is not intended to answer everything about RSS, but rather provide a comprehensive framework for future exploration of the topic(s) and to provide an understanding of the major elements of RSS quickly.

  • If you are looking for reasons to use a RSS feed or find
    ways to increase your subscribers, Darren Rowse at
    problogger.net (IMHO one of the most successful
    bloggers of today), has a great article about these subjects.
    Now, if only we hadas many people interest in Music Education
    and Technology as his legions! :)
  • Rok Hrastnik also has a great article on using RSS for an effective
    marketing strategy. In it, he details, in rare detail, a plan for
    implementing RSS to it’s fullest advantage.

Pisano

[tags] rss, atom, feed, aggregator, syndication, igoogle, reader, freeware, cita, snapfiles, feedburnerfeed101 [/tags]

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About the Author ()

Joseph M. Pisano, Ph.D. is the creator of many education websites, lecturer, clinician, trumpeter, and conductor. He is currently the Associate Chair of Music and Fine Arts at Grove City College, PA and the Vice President of TI:ME. He also writes for DCI Magazine, In-Tune Monthly and has contributed hundreds of articles to various publications. Find out more at his website jpisano.com.
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