RSS - Really Simple Syndication

RSS is a way of syndicating content published on a web site. The idea is really no different to no different to traditional news syndication. For example in the world of newspapers Cambridge News take stories from the Press Association and Reuters and publish them in their paper as CEN stories.

RSS does the same thing for the web. Web sites that want to syndicate their content, which is typically either online news sites like The Register or Milton News or the County Council press office, to take some examples I'm familiar with, or individual's blogs (essentially people's online diaries) provide the content as an RSS feed.

The RSS feed contains information about the news source (who owns it, a short and long description, the editor's email address, that sort of thing) and it contains the most recent articles published on the web site. For each article you get the headline, some or all of the content, a URL to the actual page where the original article can be found, the date published and other optional fields.

So that's the "Press Association" end of things: the syndication. But the RSS feed is raw data. Think of it as being like a teletype in an old style newpaper office spitting out stories in capital letters on a long ribbon of paper. To make use of it you need to do something with that data. Cambridge News typeset it to produce their paper. So the content doesn't change but the way it looks does.

With RSS it's much the same - there are a wide variety of applications called "aggregators" that take the RSS and do stuff with it to make it presentable. They also let you combine lots of RSS feeds to that you get news from lots of places presented to you in one interface.

Here's two examples:

  1. There's a web site called Bloglines - sign up to that (it's free) and you can build up a set of RSS feeds. Every time you visit you click on "My Feeds" and it shows you a list of all the new stories from your feeds. Click on a link and you can go to the full story on the original web site.
  2. I have a program called KNewsTicker on my desktop (it's a Linux program but there's similar programs around for Windows). If I have that running it shows the latest headlines from a selection of news feeds of my choosing which scroll across the screen in a long thin window. If a story catches my eye I click on the headline and it opens my web browser on the right page on the original web site.

Some web sites use it to show news as part of their other content - "latest headlines from XXXXX" they'll say - that will probably be via an RSS feed.

And it's also used for things other than news and blogs. For example I use a Linux distribution called Gentoo. Every day new software is released and they use RSS as one way of letting people know what's been released - every release results in an RSS article being published.

If you want to know more about RSS 2.0, which is the version we use, then the place to go is what is effectively its homepage

where there's a good overview and lots of links as well as examples of feeds from other places.