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What is RSS/XML/Atom/Syndication?

May 19, 2004

The little orange buttons that are starting to litter the web have no doubt caused mass confusion. What are they good for? Why are they there? And why don’t they work? While I and others are starting to look into suggestions for developers to alleviate this design flaw, I thought I’d take a minute to talk about what this technology potentially means to you, the user. (If you already know what RSS stands for, this article won’t tell you anything new, but feel free to reference when you need to explain syndication.)

RSS/XML/Atom are technologies, but syndication is a process. RSS and Atom are two flavours of what is more or less the same thing: a ‘feed’ which is a wrapper for pieces of regularly and sequentially-updated content, be they news articles, weblog posts, a series of photographs, and more. For the purposes of this article, consider the terms interchangable. XML is the base technology both are built on, but that’s almost totally irrelevant; the orange buttons are mislabelled, and should read ‘RSS’ or ‘Atom’ instead. Strange, but true.

Syndication is the process of using RSS/Atom for automated updates, another way of getting the information you want. You no doubt have a list of web sites you browse daily for updates, whether they’re stored in your bookmarks or your head. If you find yourself loading 20 or 30 sites a day, and you notice if a few stop updating as frequently, you’ll inevitably stop checking them.

What if there were instead some way to have your list of bookmarks notify you when the sites you read have been updated? You wouldn’t waste time checking those that haven’t. Instead of loading 30 sites a day, you might only need to load 13. Cutting your time in half would enable you to start monitoring more sites, so for the same amount of time you originally invested in checking each site manually, you may just end up end up following twice as many.

Syndication provides the tools to do this. A news reader, or aggregator as they’re also known, is a program or a web site that automatically checks your list of bookmarks (which you only have to set up once) and lets you know what’s new on each site in your list.

It goes beyond simple updates though — the news reader works by pulling in the feeds of your various bookmarks. As we covered above, a feed is a wrapper for content items, so on top of notification, a feed delivers the content that has been updated itself. You may choose to read the new content in the news reader, or you may choose to leave the reader and visit the site. Some authors will only provide summaries of the content, forcing you to visit anyway.

Newsreader screenshot with labels

As an analogy, the news reader acts like a customizable newspaper. You can pull a variety of content from a growing number of sources into one place, to be read however you choose. Sources like major news media outlets (BBC, Reuters, Washington Post) to non-news content providers (Apple’s iTunes Music Store, the Government of Canada, USGS’ World Earthquake updates) to smaller independent voices (BoingBoing, VanEats, Sidesh0w). The only stipulation is that the source must provide a feed; many are.

Beyond day to day use, a particularly nice feature is that you’re able to take your news with you on the go. Have your newsreader grab the latest feeds before you rush to the airport, then check out of the in-flight movie to catch up on the most recent goings-on. Of course the author has to be providing full content for this to work, and some only provide summaries — it’s about 50/50. Leave the summaries unread, and you can come back to them later when you’re connected again. In this regard, news readers also function like temporary bookmarks. Unread items will stay flagged until you’re near a connection or have more time to read them. No more forgetting what it was you wanted to check up on your lunch break, it’ll be there waiting for you.

If this introduction has whet your appetite, the next step is to grab a news reader and start playing. Popular at the moment are FeedDemon for Windows, NetNewsWire for Mac OS X, and Bloglines which is a platform-neutral, web-based news reader.

If you’re interested in more information about the mechanics of it, much more technical overviews are available, complete with RSS/Atom specs to help you implement them in your own work if you so choose. And of course, as syndication spreads across the net, more and more choices of content are available. Soon you’ll have a whole new problem on your hands: how many feeds are too many?


Reader Comments

1
huphtur says:
May 19, 01h

An exercise in clarity: RSS
Explain RSS in 10 words or less to someone who reads news online (and a possibly few blogs although they may not necessarily know them as “blogs”�), but doesn’t know what a newsreader or aggregator is.
http://www.37signals.com/svn/archives/000622.php

2
May 19, 03h

Thanks for the plug on the USGS RSS feed! The other night, I also noticed that it’s been picked up by Apple’s OS X Sherlock interface under “Other Channels.”

Another cool application of geo-enabled RSS feeds (as earthquakes certainly are) is worldKit by Mikel Maron:

http://www.brainoff.com/worldkit/examples.html

He has many examples including a map of our RSS earthquake feed.

3
Gordon says:
May 19, 08h

Once again I find myself reading an article and wondering - I knew that, why didn’t I piece it all together myself? Still a couple of good points in there which, as ever, would’ve been solved in a standard had been stuck to…

Right - I’m off to change that orange XML button!

4
May 19, 08h

Thanks for pointing out the misappropriation of the often recluse XML button! It’s bugged me ever since reading the in depth descriptions of the various RSS itinerations.

Opera 7.5 now includes a very simple newsfeed reader. It works flawlessly but I now find myself online more than I should be.

I’m sure many users spoiled by newsfeeds cringe at the thought of actually having to check for updates manually. The horror.

5
May 19, 08h

I have developed the new Help Desk web site for the University I work for and we are now maintaining a database for all of the outages on campus. I have created a script that creates an RSS feed from this database and we are proposing to use this around campus to alert users of new outages, thus preventing them from calling into the Help Desk when this happens.

I personally have been using Sharpreader (http://www.sharpreader.net/) on my Windows machine and been pleased with it. The only problem is that the time I wasted at work going to each of my sites everyday to see if there are updates has been eliminated as I can check with a glance if there is anything new worth reading.

6
May 19, 08h

I’ve been playing around with an XSLT/CSS version* of my RSS feed for a few months now, much like Mark Pilgrim just did. I haven’t done one for my Atom feed just yet. In neither case, do I label them as XML.

* http://jessey.net/blog/rss_styled.xml

7
andrew says:
May 19, 08h

Can you explain the existence (non-existence?) of the RSS definition “Really Simple Syndication”? Wikipedia still lists that as the heirarchical parent of both RSS(Rich Site Summary) and RDF(Resource Description Framework). How does that fit in? Is it just a relic of an incorrect or inaccurate definition?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RSS_(protocol)

8
Matthom says:
May 19, 08h

Good descriptive entry on the subject. I find this technology amazing, in terms of the information absorbed in such a short amount of time.

It truly is a great technology for information geeks.

I wrote a simple entry about RSS a while back:

http://www.matthom.com/archive/2003/11/05/01/

9
dan says:
May 19, 09h

Once again thanks Dave.

Not one hour ago I asked myself: Does the RSS file called atom.xml mean anything? Now I know, not RSS but Atom.

Just a comment… funny you say the button is a design flaw. For the end user it is a flaw, but I think for a lot of designers it means: look what I know!

I like the way you handle it on this site.

10
nikkiana says:
May 19, 09h

Thanks for giving me something that’s easy to understand that I can pass off to my less tech saavy friends. What I think has been kind of a tragedy about RSS/XML/Atom is that it’s a technology that’s simple enough for just about anyone to use, but the masses don’t know what it is because most of the explainations out there don’t explain how to use it. Most bloggers know that they have something called RSS, but don’t know why they have it. Most people I’ve noticed don’t link to their feeds (so you have to guess what their feed address is, usually it’s not too hard… most MT/WP/b2 users have their feed as the standard one that installs. But, I’ve encountered some people who have deleted their feeds because they don’t think they have any use, plus they’re ugly. (My own hostee would have if I hadn’t intervened and explained to her that the ugly file is how I read her blog.) Most blogger users I read haven’t enabled their atom feed because they don’t know what it is and don’t understand why anyone would use it. I think there needs to be a big push to explain rss/xml/atom to the public.

11
May 19, 09h

“Can you explain the existence (non-existence?) of the RSS definition ‘Really Simple Syndication’?”

“Really Simple Syndication” came from Dave Winer, as far as I know. It was an attempt, I believe, to make the format more accessible. I think it sounds silly, personally.

12
May 19, 09h

This is a really useful thing. I have linked to it in the browser view of the Webjay feed at http://webjay.org/feed.xml.

Possible improvements:
* a shorter URL
* a standard stylesheet for Atom/RSS that inserts a pointer to this.

13
dju` says:
May 19, 10h

liferea (http://liferea.sf.net/) is a very promising rss reader for linux.

14
May 19, 10h

Oddly, I’ve found myself having to explain RSS several times in the past few weeks, so this post was timely. I’ve linked to it from my own blog (http://jonathanbaldwin.blogspot.com/) and thanks are duly offered!

15
May 19, 10h

Great intro. Funny, last week I wrote a similar article on my blog in portuguese to try to educate some of my users, but I took a different approach :-)

http://jonasgalvez.com/br/blog/2004-05/syndication-rss-atom

(Google Translate might help, just in case anyone wants to have a look at it :-)

16
Dave S. says:
May 19, 10h

“Possible improvements: a shorter URL”

You got it:

http://www.mezzoblue.com/subscribe/about/

17
panayman says:
May 19, 11h

Syndication is a funny old thing… At the end of the day we need to understand what it is we are trying to achieve.
Are we trying to keep up with technology for the sake of it?
Do we have something to offer our users?
Is it easy for our users to understand how to incorporate this into a)their online life or b)their website/business?

The problem with RSS (et el) is that it is just an nondescript (usually) button that says nothing and has no meaning. As new programs (FeedDemon etc) discover RSS and put them into context this becomes less of an issue and I think this is how most browsers and email clients will proceed.

We’ve been offering javascript based syndication for 5 years and it has proved extremely popular for 3 main reasons, the content is good and targeted and, it is extremely easy for a webmaster to incorporate into their site and it is only targeted at webmasters. No server technologies or extra components to be confounded by or consume precious time implementing.
We’re just in beta of our new RSS feeds but these are aimed at larger websites and the personal readers. ( www.yourrelease.com/rss.asp if you’re interested)

Sorry. Starting to write a thesis and not sure if my point is made, suffice to say, know your purpose and then promote that effectively.

18
Dan says:
May 19, 11h

I did a rant of sorts on XML buttons back when it was irritating me (it still odes, but more so then). It’s rather silly that at the same time sites are trying to make it easier to access their content that they go and use acronyms that don’t describe it properly.

It’s like calling a Porsche Carrara “Gasoline Engine.”

Naming RSS: http://www.dynamicartwork.com/wp-archives/2003/09/7/

19
Isofarro says:
May 20, 01h

Andrew asks: “Can you explain the existence (non-existence?) of the RSS definition ‘Really Simple Syndication’? “

RSS is not one specification, its a collection of nine different specifications (http://diveintomark.org/archives/2004/02/04/incompatible-rss ). Typically when RSS is mentioned, it is used to refer to the RSS2.0 specification (http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/tech/rss ) - this is where RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication”. (The BBC newsfeed above is actually an RSS0.92 feed).

RSS started its life within Netscape, as a way of websites being able to publish headlines of other websites. At that time it was called Rich Site Summary. Netscape later abandoned RSS, and it was later “appropriated” by Dave Winer who rebadged it “Really Simple Syndication” (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/rss-dev/message/1136 ).

The RDF Site Summary is the name of the RSS1.0 specification, which reintroduced the RDF syntax to the RSS specifications. This was authored by a community of developers interested in syndication. (http://diveintomark.org/archives/2002/09/06/history_of_the_rss_fork )

20
May 20, 05h

Consider it linked to (http://xmouse.ithium.net/feeds.php

21
Jim says:
May 20, 12h

Insightful article, will no doubt be of much use to those just discovering syndication. I’ve always wondered why those buttons label themselves as XML. I always chose to label them rss1/rss2/atom - which is just common sense I guess.

Hey, whatever happened to newsmonster for Moz? I can’t even find the section it used to reside in at mozilla.org. weird.

22
nick says:
May 20, 12h

For Netscape users with high-res screens I highly reccomend the cross-platform NewsMonster http://www.newsmonster.org/ . It throws another sidebar into the mix which holds all your RSS feed subscriptions and has a whole mess of other nifty features (including Phil Ringnalda’s ‘BlogThis!’ contextual menu item). I find that with my 1600x1200 screen it provides a useful feature where otherwise wasted space would be. It currently supports RSS altough Atom capability is (supposedly) on the horizon.

23
Paul says:
May 21, 12h

Okay, lots of good information as usual. However, I do not see a lot of information on how to create an rss feed.

Can this be done using .asp?

Are there any tutorials out there on how to create your own rss feeds?

24
Mark says:
May 22, 06h

Like some of the other folks commenting here, I’ve also recently been in a position whereby I’ve had to explain the benefits of RSS feeds to people who run news-based web sites.

While most people can easily wrap their head around the concept of an aggregated newspaper, the one thing that consistently puts people off is the notion that an RSS feed is going to push visitors away from their site. In other words, why bother visiting a web site if you can just cream off the interesting news items via RSS?

I usually counter this by pointing out that the web master is in complete control of the feed and is able to release as little or as much information as he needs to. RSS feeds are just as effective when used as a dangling carrot, tempting the reader to visit the site and explore the multitude of content.

Unfortunately the seeds of mistrust and suspicion regarding RSS have already been sewn and the web master is still reluctant to pursue the technology further. This is the only significant hurdle I’ve encountered when trying to “sell” people the concept of RSS. It’s tricky trying to convince them that RSS doesn’t necessarily “steal” readers away from one’s web site.

25
May 23, 09h

thanks for the link to VanEats, Dave!

26
May 23, 09h

“…create an rss feed….Can this be done using .asp? Are there any tutorials out there on how to create your own rss feeds?”

I’m in research mode myself – check out these links:

Making an RSS Feed
http://searchenginewatch.com/sereport/article.php/2175271

RSS Tutorial
http://www.mnot.net/rss/tutorial/

Syndicating Your Web Site’s Content with RSS
http://www.4guysfromrolla.com/webtech/031303-1.shtml

Building an RSS feed made simple (should have read Dave’s article first! *grin*)
http://www.uberasp.net/getarticle.aspx?id=17

How To Create a Basic RSS Feed /
Creating a RSS Feed
http://www.christian-web-masters.com/articles/web_rss-tutorial__page_1.html

RSS: What it is, Where to get it, How to make it, How to use it
http://www.interleaves.org/~rteeter/rss.html

Enjoy!

BTW, thanks Dave for bringing clarity to this subject!

27
Anil says:
May 24, 01h

Just to clarify, Atom isn’t only a feed format that’s analogous to RSS, it’s also a simple way to write to a wide variety of web publishing tools. That means Atom is a single format for reading from or writing to the web, especially for sites like weblogs, from a range of tools and devices.

28
Matt Koon says:
May 24, 02h

Interesting,

How is Atom employed in writing to websites? Finding the easiest way to publish to the web is always important =)

29
Matt Koon says:
May 24, 08h

All around great article, kudos!

BUT, what are the differences, pro and con, between RSS and Atom? I would have expected you to cover why there are two flavors, and not just say “there are two flavors. Moving on …”

I think I will have to hunt for this info myself, but it would have been great to read it here as well.

30
Eric Ott says:
May 25, 07h

Great article. I am trying to learn this new technology. How can I do this in Coldfusion. Also, how do I get Google etc. to pick it up?

31
Michael says:
May 26, 04h

Could you perhaps do an article about the differences between RSS, RSS 2 and Atom? Because I have absolutely no idea what they are…

32
Min says:
May 26, 05h

I’m totally new to this RSS thingy-jig, so I thought the article was a nice, brief intro to the whole thing. It has definitely whetted my appetite and will definitely check out the site’s RSS resources next!

Also, its been a long time since I last visited this site, and I forgot what a great resource this site is. Like the re-design btw…

min

33
grant says:
May 26, 07h

the ‘design flaw’ of the orange button could also be looked upon as an opportunity to educate users in the advantages of right-clicking links, namely ‘copy shortcut’ and ‘open in new window’. two underutilised actions that make using the web much easier.

i’ve only scanned the comments, but has the concept of ‘users exposed to the orange button are typically users involved or aware of the blogging realm, users that could also be assumed to react quickly to the inital conditions of clicking the orange button’, been raised? i’m thinking - most misguided people that click the button and follow up finding out about syndication and feedreaders, would be the sort of user that doesn’t want the information-rich service that syndication provides. they aren’t the information greedy like us. they just wanted to check their email and research the vacation, and somehow ended up here with all these headlines.

34
May 30, 10h

For my rss reader i use forumzilla. It’s a pre-alpha but it’s gotten me back into using feeds again. I stopped using (sharpreader, FeedDemon) because it made me open a program just to read blogs, which in my mind is a bit of a deterrent when starting out reading rss feeds. Forumzilla creates a News & blogs section under your current email alias. Adding new finds is cumbersome, but if you add a shortcut to your desktop to the .slt file than its easy. Having them grouped with my email is nice.
http://forumzilla.mozdev.org/index.html


Also, I liked this article on “How to Create an RSS Feed With Notepad, a Web Server, and a Beer”
http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/website/view.cgi?dbs=Article&key=1059503386

35
malini says:
June 17, 03h

I got a better insight into RSS when I read this article.The way the terms RSS,Atom,XML,syndication,aggregators are defined is best for a beginner like me.Carry on!

36
trilioth says:
June 17, 07h

Great article btw… very informative…

I would like to add a reader to your list. A wonderful program I discovered from the front page of http://www.flashkit.com/ , it is called Gush. Gush is a instant messaging program with it’s own sevice as well as gateways to other messenger services (some examples are; YIM, AIM, MSN, ICQ; I tested these myself). One feature of this program is news feeds actually I connected to this site from a news feed that is linked in gush by default. Oh yeah, Gush is free! Visit the Gush site ( http://www.2entwine.com ).