How do RSS Feeds Work?

First, what is RSS?

RSS Stands for Really Simple Syndication. It’s a file format if you will. It’s not really designed for people to read, it’s designed for programs to pass data around about what kind of content is on your site, what’s new, etc.

Think of RSS as like the on-screen guide for your cable or satellite TV service.

The onscreen guide lists a channel and its description and what programs are coming up on that channel and their description.

Well, and RSS file format has two levels of organization. At the top is a channel. With it is a name and description. Only this isn’t the name and description of a TV channel, it’s the name and description of your website or blog.

The second level of organization under channel isn’t program like in our TV guide, but item. These have information about each of the recent stories or blog posts on your site. The information on each item includes its name, description, publication date, a link to the story, etc.

If you want to dig into it, the RSS feed actually looks a lot like HTML. Its’ text surrounded by tags. Only instead of page structure tags in HTML, like nav, section, footer, article, etc., there are tags for channel, item, title, description, link, etc. It’s done in a standard that was inspired by HTML called XML which is used to structure data other than web pages.

There’s also standard similar to RSS called ATOM that instead of consisting of a channel with items, it has a feed with entries. Still kinda the same thing.

What kind of sites generate RSS? Just about everything. Blogs. Forums, news sites like the BBC, CNN, etc., Every podcast generates an RSS feed. hands out upcoming meetings via RSS. You can get a list of your Delicious bookmarks in RSS. The magento e-commerce platform provides the store owner with an RSS feed of items that they’re running low on. Categories on Craigslist have RSS feeds. YouTube, Google Calendar and Reddit generate ATOM feeds. There are millions of RSS feeds available to you on the internet.

So what can you do with them? You can drive your browser bookmarks with them. Firefox generally has a “latest news” bookmark that pulls the RSS feed from the BBC. You can put them into an RSS reader like Feedly and make your own news dashboard of your favorite sources. You can display them on your website, as maybe a sidebar widget showing the latest stories from a related site or blog. You can set up programs like Hootsuite or Buffer to take items from your site’s RSS feed and post them to your social media accounts. You can use automation sites like IFTTT or Zapier to take RSS items and send them to Dropbox, a spreadsheet, to your phone via SMS. You can have them automatically post to WordPress or Blogger. Mailchimp can take your recent RSS items and send them out as a newsletter to your subscribers.

Look at this chart and you can start to get an idea of all the possibilities out there. It’s a lot more exciting than just reading the news. It’s one of the underlying layers of plumbing of the web.

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