Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Getting Started with Syndication (Part 1)

In the last week, I've heard the same thing from several people: "RSS? Yeah... I've heard of it. I don't really get it." Usually the person saying this looks a little embarrassed.

The embarrassment is silly, because lots and lots of people have heard of it but don't get it. Site syndication technology (RSS and Atom, or more generically, XML feeds) have been around a while, but adoption of them hasn't really taken off yet. They're not a mainstream tool, and so if you're not sure why everyone seems to be talking about them or why you should care, don't worry about it.

But do something about it, because we're talking about simple, easy to use tools that will do great things for you:

  • Make it easier to keep up with web content
  • Make it easier for other to keep up with you

All without a lot of work or investment on your part.

And so this morning I'm starting the Opinionated Marketers' brief "XML feeds for Dummies" series. It will be short, painless, and you'll never have to think, "Everybody understands this but me!" again.

Part 1: What is it?

Quite simply, it's a way to subscribe to web content. Instead of going to web sites to find information you need, the information comes to you.

We've heard this before: remember "push?" In the late 90s the big revolution was going to be information delivered to users, instead of users seeking out information.

It was a bust, largely because the paradigm was content providers acting as content deciders, offering users a limited set of choices of content that were delivered to them with unwieldy and often irritating technology. Remember Pointcast, the desktop application that gave you some generic news and a lot of adds while eating all the bandwidth in your corporate network and irritating the hell out of your IT people? If you don't, you missed nothing.

What's different now? Site feeds let you decide what you want, how much of it you want, and let you read it in any one of a number of convenient ways. You're in control.

A note on terminology: "XML feeds," "site feeds," and "syndication" all describe the general technology. "RSS" and "Atom" are two specific implementations of it (though you're hear RSS used as generic term for it). The idea is the same whatever term you hear: information is delivered in XML format to a reader that presents it to you.

Here's what great about it: because we've got a standard way to deliver the information to users, it's very easy for anyone to create feeds. That means that there are lots of feeds. Many of them are blogs, but they're also common on news sites. And because the technology is so simple, you can customize the feeds you receive, to get specialized results - like the latest news on "pink elephants in Peoria" or any other search term.

And once you subscribe to the feeds that interest you, your work is done: the information you want will just show up where you want it: in your web browser, or in standalone feed reader software.

Next: finding a feed reader that fits your work and browsing habits.


Anonymous said...

Why isn't your RSS subscription link on your blog page???

John Whiteside said...

Oh, we're busted. It was on a list of template tweaks waiting to be done, but you're right, shame on us (or me, anyway) for not adding it before doing it before writing this post.

It's now there. Thanks for the kick in the butt.

Paul Gibler said...

I've posted several stories related to RSS on my blog the Web Chef's e-Bytes at In addition I wrote an article for Wisconsin Technology Network - "No RSS Feed? You're fired!" that your readers might find interesting. It is at