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RSS: What’s it for?

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

It's been a long day at work and no one wants to cook dinner or go out. Put the index finger to work and call the reliable pizza delivery guy. The order is called in and he promptly arrives with hot pizza within 30 minutes as promised. Wait a minute — not for this family with three picky eaters and no one who wants the same thing! One wants a burger, another wants Mexican, and another wants a steak. Instead of running to three different places, call a delivery service that goes to all of them and brings it to you. What could be easier than getting a meal without cooking it or fetching it?

RSS, XML, RDF, and Atom are the food delivery guy of the Internet. The content they deliver is mixed and cooked elsewhere on the Internet just like the meal isn't made on a door step. The acronym fellows bring the content to you via software or an online application. Instead of trying to remember all the places where you like to go to get the latest news, it all comes to you once you make your selection.

Grab That Funky Code

Click on those orange or blue RSS, XML, or RDF buttons to get unreadable text or something looking remarkably like HTML markup. Some of it is readable, but reading between the <tags> is slow and an eyesore. This is the raw ingredients of the content known as a feed. To make it easily readable, download a feed reader that can interpret (aggregate) the ingredients or sign up for an online service that can do the same.

When the software or application is ready to go, click on the orange or blue button (or "Syndicate This Page," or whatever along these lines) and copy the resulting URL from the address box (or you can right-click and copy the link). Paste it into the application to cook the ingredients where it's delivered to you ready for tasting and experiencing.

Syndication: It Does a Mind Good

Syndication is a not a new concept on the Internet, but it's appearing almost everywhere as Web sites and newsletters are churning content to turn it into syndicated files, which are fed into an aggregator. It's ready-to-travel content and it can go anywhere. Grab the feed and feed it to the aggregator as another way of bookmarking a (or creating a favorite) site. Seriously, how often do you go back to the site via bookmarks / favorites?

A person who regularly uses an aggregator is going to get the benefit of receiving information from favorite resources without schlepping from site to site in search of information. The content all comes to you in one place via the aggregator.

The feeds can be sorted in folders by topic for easy finding. To stay on top of the goings-on in the Web design world, create a folder for Web design and put all the resources into the folder. Update the aggregator and voila! The folder is brimming with fresh content on CSS, XML, usability, and accessibility, anything covered in those resources.

Scanning content in aggregators is easier than on a Web site because it's in one folder with headlines and maybe a short summary depending on the program used and the set up. A Web site is limited to the resources it offers, some of which may or may not be favorites. Resources come from blogs, news sites, newsletters, and Web sites.

Any content can be syndicated. Typically, it requires having a backend process in place, which is dependent on the application used for managing the content. If a site doesn't have such resources, then there is software such as SSRSS for entering content to create a file with the feed for posting on the site. There are several ways for generating a feed as explained in this tutorial, which also lists a few other RSS feed generators.

Most aggregators have exporting capabilities so the feed can be shared with others interested in the same topic. If you're interested in my Web design feeds, I can export them into, in most cases, an OPML file and you can import it into your aggregator.

What Does RSS Mean for Web Designers?

Clients are going to want their Web site content to have syndication capabilities as another way for people to receive their content. Many bloggers have written that they won't go to a Web site unless it has syndication available, and clients don't want to neglect such an audience.

The development for syndication is usually the responsibility of the developers. Not all projects have a programmer with XML knowledge available, so Web designers who understand this concept can get a step ahead with their clients. Designing with Web standards using XHTML with CSS is a way to make the syndication process easier.

Some scraping tools work with markup such as <div> and <span> tags, which is simple for designers to implement. Another option for those with dynamic Web sites is to use Web design-based languages like PHP and PERL to integrate the feed into the publishing process.

As for looks, already I've seen an example of a feed getting styled, and that capability will be available for everyone soon enough. This is where CSS comes in handy.

Get the Show on the Road

Syndication offers another way for readers to get content just like you can get pizza in different ways: go to the restaurant, have it delivered, or make it at home. More applications are adding syndication capabilities, which make the process effortless.

There was a time when we didn't have the option to have pizza delivered to our doorstep. When we're too tired, we know we can rely on the delivery guy. In term of content, expect to see it show up at your doorstep more often than the pizza guy. Plus, it's cheaper, with the cost only coming from the software, though there are many free options available. Syndication is not a passing fad and should be added to a Web designer's toolbox. Witness it by watching for RSS, XML, RDF, and Atom out there.