Harnessing Web Feeds : A Quick Guide to RSS/XML


(Published in Metro magazine, Australia – Nov 2004 )

Information hunter-gatherers the globe over are abuzz about the benefits and potential of RSS. Media junkies, news hounds, webtrawlers, writers, bloggers and DIY publishers alike, are almost evangelical in their praise for the web syndication format known as RSS or “Really Simple Syndication”. At it’s most simple RSS allows you to keep track of many information sources in the one place. Think of it as a web syndication protocol that allows easy automatic notification of news. Importantly though, you choose what is news – whether it’s the BBC site, a new post on your friend’s blog, some item you want to watch on ebay, the weather guide or writings by your favourite author or film reviewer. Whenever any of these are updated, the news will come to you. Given you’re already reading the technical back pages of a thick media magazine, you know you want it. Even better – RSS can be easily implemented on your own site.

The Mechanics of RSS
It’s worth prying under the bonnet of this automated news delivery system a little, before unveiling it’s features and applications, for despite it’s simplicity, RSS offers a glimpse of where media delivery is headed – and is understood better with it’s distribution architecture under your belt. Not to worry though, we’ll be serving you custom news feeds in no time.

Firstly, RSS is based upon XML ( eXtensible Mark-Up Language ), which is similar to the HTML (hyper-text mark-up langauge ) used to make webpages, except XML is designed to describe data and focus on what that data is, and HTML is designed to display data and focus on how it looks. That means it’s a meta-language of sorts, and this stored information about a site can be accessed by other applications such as RSS ‘Newsreaders’.

Newsreaders (also known as an RSS aggregators or feed readers), automatically check at determined intervals through a list of RSS enabled websites picked by the user. If any of the chosen sites have updated since the last check, the Newsreader will download a headline and brief description of the updates and present these within a single interface. The benefit and convenience for the user is having these fresh summaries all in one place, automatically delivered as soon as published, rather than having to wander through to each of the sites to browse their news. If a site has no updates you wont receive any news, and won’t need to bother visiting. A wider range of news can be easily skimmed, and with a click, the news you prefer most can be followed through to the full story at it’s website.

Such news delivery represents a subtle but evolutionary step in the media environment, part of an inevitable shift towards highly customised, personal news services. At the time of writing, RSS coders are busy promoting and refining the first generation of ‘podcasting’ software – essentially an automatically delivered audio news or music service. Using RSS podcasters can simply post regular audio files online, and their audiences will automatically be notified about the new files. The podcast software streamlines the process of downloading the audio first to your computer and then to your ipod ( hence the coined ‘podcast’) or portable audio player of choice. Of course video can only follow, and the small file size of RSS can be great for keeping up to date with websites via mobile phones, but let’s deal with computer text & RSS for now.

Saving Time With NewsReaders
It’s nice to occasionally remember that the machines we once thought of as time-saving devices, can actually be put to use for that purpose. For anyone whose business or pleasure requires a lot of online reading, RSS Newsreaders will save you large amounts of time. In theory. In practice, all those hours saved by not having to search for news or check for updated pages, can often be swallowed up by the additional news sites and fascinating news items that now seem available. At any rate, auto-delivery = good. Here’s where you get yourself a Newsreader and get news delivered in 2 easy steps.

Step 1 : Choose A Newsreader for Your Platform
Mac – Netnewswire ( http://ranchero.com/software/netnewswire ) is one of the most popular Mac Newsreaders, combining a smooth interface with lots of features – including the ability to post messages to your website about any news items you wish to comment on from the reader.
PC – Radio Userland ( http://radio.userland.com ) is mac & pc. RSS Reader (www.rssreader.com ) is PC only.
Linux – Try aKregator ( http://akregator.sourceforge.net )

OR Via The Web : In place of a desktop client, Bloglines ( www.bloglines.com ) allows your news to be compiled via a single webpage.

Step 2: Subscribe to News Feeds
If you started reading this piece with the niggling feeling you’d somehow known about RSS before, it’s probably because you’ve surfed past a million little RSS or XML buttons dotting the bottom of webpages. Clicking on one of those will take you to a page of code. This is the code which describes a webpage ( rather than says how to display it), and the address of this page is what you need to give your newsreader. This can be done either by copying the URL from this page of code – or by copying the link address from the RSS or XML buttons themselves, then after finding a ‘subscribe’ or ‘new channel’ or ‘new feed’ button in your newsreader, pasting the URL there. Do this to ten sites, and your newsreader will check those ten addresses periodically for updates and display the headlines and introductory sentences for any news. Once you get the swing of it, you’ll soon get a hankering for more RSS sites. Help is on hand at the end of the article, in the form of RSS directories.

Making Your Own RSS Feed
If you are wishing to let people know about updates to your website, it’s possible you are already using some blogging software such as movabletype.org or a content management system or some fancy database. In those cases, RSS publishing functionality is probably already built in, and can be harnessed by reading some manuals online – ie your RSS meta-data is probably already there, you just need to find the address for it, and learn the process to customise it. If not using such web-publishing software, RSS coding is easier than HTML to learn ( try here – www.frugalmarketing.com/dtb/rss-feed.shtml) and simple RSS Feed software is available ( http://softwaregarden.com/products/listgarden ) for simplifying that process. Aside from integrating RSS into your own site, and notifying others of your updates, RSS can also be used to integrate constantly updated headlines from other news sources into your site.

RSS Resources
Daypop (www.daypop.com ) – A search engine for RSS-based news.
Feedster: ( www.feedster.com ) A search engine for public RSS feeds that can also provide the results of a search as an ongoing RSS feed.
Submitting : www.masternewmedia.org/rss/top55 – Lists the top 55 Submission sites to let search engines know about your RSS Feed.
Finding Feeds: www.syndic8.com & www.blogstreet.com/rssdiscovery.html
News Is Free ( http://newsisfree.com ) – A Web-based news reader, which also does some third-party scraping – this means it can generate RSS data for sites which do not have it.

Jean Poole is a Melbourne based writer who enjoys exploring real-time audiovisual performance technology. Some words, AV snippets & his RSS Feed can be found here

Autobot Roulette:

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.