Understanding RSS and Web Feeds

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by bledsoe on July 6, 2009

For a long time I had a vague understanding of RSS as something that let me know when one of my favorite blogs was updated, but always felt a little unclear on some of the basics.  Here's a short explanation of RSS, and of web feeds in general.

  1. A web feed is useful for a website that has content that is frequently updated. If your website's content doesn't change much, there's not much point to having a web feed.  If your website's content changes frequently however (like, say, for a blog), having a web feed gives your readers a convenient way to keep up with your new site content without having to surf to your site frequently.
  2. RSS is a specific type of web feed format. In particular, note that while many people use the terms interchangeably, RSS is in fact just one type of web feed format, though it is the most well-known.  (The other main web feed format is Atom.)
  3. In order for a website to have a web feed, a web feed file must be created and placed in the root directory of the website.  You can create your own web feed file manually, or you can find a free online tool to do it for you.  If you have a WordPress site, your web feed files are already set up for you, and this is true of many other blogging platforms as well.
  4. What about those orange web feed icons in my browser address bar? I used to think that those ubiquitous orange webfeed icons I was always seeing in the address bar when I visited a website were just a part of the internet, but in fact, the site owner/developer has to make that happen.  Once the web feed file is created and placed in the site's root directory, a web feed icon can be made to appear in the browser's address bar when someone visits the site by adding a line of html code to the site's header.  Again, WordPress and other blogging platforms take care of this for you.  You can also use similar code to add web feed icons elsewhere on your webpage.
  5. Once you have a web feed set up on your site, when someone wants to subscribe to your feed, they simply go to your website, click on the web feed icon, and add your website's feed to whatever feed reader (aka, feed aggregator) they use.  iGoogle and the Google Reader are two well-known web-based feed readers though there are many others, as well as client-based feed readers.

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