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What is RSS, and Why Should You Care?

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This week, SearchDay takes a close look at RSS, a web publishing format that's transforming information delivery for both publishers and users.

RSS has been around for some time now, and savvy users have come to rely on their RSS "feeds" as a fundamental channel for keeping up with current events and discovering new information. But RSS is still somewhat confusing for many people, and with good reason—it's an emerging technology that's still going through massive growing pains, even as it changes the way we consume information.

Today, I'm going to attempt to get my arms around a definition of RSS, what it is and isn't, and why it's important for both searchers and search marketers. Tomorrow I'll look closely at RSS search tools and how they work. Thursday will be dedicated to RSS readers, the software that makes it easy to find, subscribe to and read information published in RSS format.

What is RSS?

Depending on who you talk to, or which version of history you choose to believe, RSS has a number of meanings. According to the Wikipedia entry on RSS, the acronym has morphed several times due to squabbling over standards.

RDF Site Summary (RSS) came first, introduced with the My Netscape portal in March 1999. My Netscape was one of the first customizable portals, and RSS was a key component that allowed users to add specific types of content from a wide variety of sources with relative ease.

Rich Site Summary followed shortly thereafter, in July 1999. This RSS standard was jointly created by Dan Libby, author of Netscape's RDF Site Summary, and Dave Winer, author of a similar format called ScriptingNews.

At this point, Netscape lost interest in the standard. Winer moved forward with his own work, but another group called RSS-DEV produced a different flavor of the standard. In August 2002 Winer put forth an enhancement to his version of RSS, calling it Really Simple Syndication.

Confused? Wait! There's more! In June 2003 yet another working group formed to propose a new format called Atom. Controversy still runs high in the standards community. The good news is that we non-technical types don't really have to worry much about acronyms, standards or other minutiae to use RSS.

The bottom line is that the providers of RSS tools have worked hard to make it very easy for anyone to both create and consume RSS feeds. Once you have a basic (very basic) understanding of the technology, you can pretty much ignore all of the controversy and simply take advantage of all of the rich content available in RSS format.

Acronyms aside, RSS fundamentally is a relatively simple specification that uses XML to organize and format web-based content in a standard way. Content owners create an RSS feed, an XML formatted web page which usually consists of titles and brief descriptions of ten or so articles elsewhere on the site. Because feeds are created using the RSS standard, they can easily be read by a software client called an RSS feed reader or aggregator. Most feed readers can handle all of the current standards.

What's different about RSS feeds vs. straightforward web content? Not much, really, but one key difference is crucial: Content published in an RSS feed is typically set up to send out notifications whenever new material is available.

This makes the new content immediately available to feed readers and RSS search engines. Contrast this with ordinary web pages, which are essentially passive and generally aren't accessible to most of us until search engine crawlers find and index them. And then, once indexed, these pages stand relatively little chance of being surfaced by web searchers.

That's why RSS is important, and why its something every serious web searcher should be using. RSS feed readers allow you to subscribe to feeds that you know contain important or useful information, and your feed reader will notify you immediately whenever new content for your subscriptions is available. In short, once you've identified a useful resource that publishes an RSS feed, you can virtually skip searching for it altogether.

RSS has other virtues, as well. Because RSS is popular with both bloggers and news media organizations, you can use RSS search engines to find information in near real-time. For example, with the Indonesian tsunami or the London bombings, RSS search engines allowed users to locate information, images and videos posted by people on the scene hours before traditional media sources had similar eye-witness coverage.

How do you identify web sites that publish RSS feeds? That's the focus of tomorrow's SearchDay, RSS Search Engines.

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the How many of you use blogs/rss as your main source of news? discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

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