RSS – What, Where, Why and How

RSS Icon. Found at: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/970190I have been working on the Internet far too long. I remember when the only way to get the latest information from a website was to actually go and visit the website. What a waste of time that was! Face it, browsing the Internet looking at websites is a huge time waster. There is a reason many companies block huge portions of the Internet during work hours. They want people to work not watch YouTube videos and update their Facebook profile.

Not long after I started creating websites for a living there was a lot of talk about Push technology. The idea was pretty simple really, you would install a piece of software on your computer and the information would be sent right to you. No need to go and get it, just open the software and you could read the latest news. I remember it did not work very well and it had so many advertisements that it was often faster to go and visit the websites to begin with.

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) changed all of that. No longer did you have to go to a website to read the latest news and information that the website had available. You could simply open your RSS reader and have it delivered right to you. You can save time by collecting your favorite RSS feeds in your preferred RSS reader and read through all of them in less time that it ever took to visit the sites.

What is RSS?
An RSS feed is essentially just an Extensible Markup Language (XML) file. To be very simplistic about what RSS is, RSS is a way of sharing information in a standardized format. This allows easy access to using that information in other ways. If you want to read about some of the history of RSS check out the Wikipedia article on RSS.

Where do you use RSS?
RSS is used in many different ways everyday. For most people the most common use of RSS is to syndicate information. They use RSS to subscribe to their favorite blogs and news sources in an RSS reader so they can get quick updates about new information. This saves them time while delivering the most up to date information. Another use of RSS is to make data easy to transport to another location. If you have ever used the WordPress export utility to move your blog from one server to another you have used RSS.

RSS has a darkside for blogs called feed scrapers. Feed scrapers take a RSS feed and republish the contents of the feed on another website without the original website owners permission. This is usually done to profit from the information. This is often a reason given by blog owners to only offer partial RSS feeds, to limit feed scrapers from stealing their content. I will have an upcoming post on how feed scrapers and what bloggers can do to stop them.

Why use RSS on a blog?
You might ask yourself what is the point of offering RSS on your blog if people are just going to steal it and read your content away from your blog. You want people to visit your blog because that is how you make money. Using RSS on your blog offers several benefits. First it is good for you because you have an idea of how many people enjoy your writing and topic. Essentially they are your fan club, and we all need a fan club (especially Rhett).

Second it helps you make money. Having RSS subscribers gives you a way of measuring how popular your blog is. This can help you determine how much to charge for advertisements on your blog, there is the opportunity to place advertising in the feed itself, and it is another form of permission marketing. Do you think a review on John Chow would cost $500 if he did not have 20,000+ willing subscribers? People don’t pay that much for a review for his writing, they are paying to get in front of his 20,000+ subscribers.

Third, RSS is good for community. It lets your readers save time by reading your blog posts in a feed reader, on their mobile and in any number of different ways. This gives them an easy way to come back to your website and take part in the conversation or to take the conversation and make it a part of their blog. RSS gives your blog wings to reach more people.

How do you use RSS?
All of the modern blogging software offers RSS feeds as a standard feature. If you are using a blogging platform that does not offer RSS feeds, then I highly suggest you switch to a different platform.

Autodiscovery
RSS autodiscoveryModern web browsers can automatically detect feeds and will allow people to subscribe to them simply by clicking on the icon in their web browser. This is done by adding a line to the head portion of the document. For example Epibloggers looks like this:
<link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" title="Epiblogger RSS Feed" href="http://www.epiblogger.net/feed/" />

Most blogging software will do this automatically for you, since it is already creating the RSS feed for you. Visit any blog on Blogspot or WordPress.com and the RSS autodiscovery code has been created for the authors as long as they have not turned RSS feeds off. You can read more about RSS autodiscovery at the RSS Advisory Board

Feed Links
To make it more obvious that you provide an RSS feed to your readers it is suggested that you provide other more obvious links that allows them to subscribe. This can be done by placing links on your sidebar that are easy to see for new readers to subscribe. Epiblogger places them at the top of our sidebar. Many people use the standard feed icon 48px-feed-icon.png to make it easy to find the link to subscribe.

Depending on your blogging software you can also use other methods such as a plugin like What Would Seth Godin Do? on WordPress to encourage new readers to subscribe.

Measuring Subscribers
While blogging software will create your RSS feed for you many will not let you manage it or even tell you how many subscribers you have. Because of this many bloggers will use a service such as Feedburner to track subscribers, offer RSS to email services and be able to display a feed subscriber image to show off how many RSS subscribers you have. I personally like Feedburner, and use it on the majority of blogs that I run or manage for clients. It

Conclusion
I hope this post has been helpful for the bloggers out there that are wondering about what RSS is and why you should offer an RSS feed. I know it can be confusing to many people that are just starting out blogging. The best way to understand some of the benefits of RSS is to strt using it. I personally use Google Reader to subscribe to RSS feeds. There are many other RSS feed readers that you can use, but I prefer the Google Reader because I can use it over the web no matter where I am. Once you start using RSS to read your favorite blogs and news you will wonder how you ever got along without it. It will save you a great deal of time and allow you to manage information that you are interested in better.

If you are a visual learner check out this great video by Common Craft that describes the benefits of RSS.

Now that you know more about RSS be sure to subscribe to the Epiblogger RSS feed to get regular updates about how to become better blogger.

5 Responses to RSS – What, Where, Why and How

Leave a reply