28 October 2010

What are Feeds, RSS, Atom, XML?

What are feeds? What is "RSS", "XML", and "Atom"? I see them, but I don't know what they mean or how to use them, can you help me? These are questions that many new bloggers always ask. This post tries to explain what these mean and how to use them.

What are feeds?

Feeds are the means by which publishers of websites, both large and small, distribute their content. Ordinarily, people visit your site to read your content using browsers like Internet Explorer, Firefox, and any one of other browsers in existence today. With feeds, they do not need to visit your site in a browser to read your new content each time you publish it.

Feeds permit your site visitors to SUBSCRIBE to regular updates which is delivered automatically to them via a web portal, news reader or, less commonly, the email. They also make it possible for site content to be packaged into "widgets," "gadgets," mobile devices, and other bite-sized technologies that make it possible to display blogs, podcasts, and major news/sports/weather/whatever headlines just about anywhere.

How do I recognize feeds? And what is their implication?

Feeds are easily recognized via the universal feed icon or other "chicklets" (see the images to the right). These icons and "chicklets" can be seen on some of your favorite websites, weblogs and podcasts.

Feeds represent content in any format - text, audio or video - in which you have published them on your blog, site or podcast. The implications of this are:
  1. it is not only easy for you to publish regular updates to your web-based content, but each time you update your site, all previously subscribed visitors get it;
  2. people can easily subscribe to these feeds and read/watch/listen to them using a feed reader; thus keeping track of a large number of their favorite websites or blogs including yours, without having to remember to check each site manually (in a browser) or clutter their email inbox (except they decide to SUBSCRIBE via email). In other words, site visitors streamline their online experience by subscribing to specific content feeds and aggregating this information in one place to be read at their convenience; and
  3. advertisers of goods and services can take advantage of this opportunity of a great number of people, i.e. your subscribers, reading your content through your feed to advertise in your feed like Google's 'ADSENSE FOR FEED'. This way, you can monetize your feed and the advertiser can advertise his goods and services to your readers.

What is "RSS", "XML", and "Atom"?

The feed (or web feed) is a method for easily distributing online content. The technical format that makes this possible is called RSS (Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary). RSS is based on XML, a widely used standard for exchanging textual information between applications on the Internet. Although RSS feeds can be viewed as plain text files, they are actually designed for computer-to-computer communication.

RSS is just one standard for expressing feeds as XML. Another well-known choice is Atom. Both formats have their promoters, so it doesn't appear that consolidation toward a single standard is imminent in the near future.

However, most feed subscribers simply want fresh content and don't care at all about the underlying protocol - whether RSS or Atom. In this regard, feed management providers like FeedBurner help publishers avoid this dilemma with their SmartFeed service, which makes any feed format readable on any subscriber device.

In summary...

The bottom line is that it is a win-win situation for everyone - the consumer (your site visitor), the publisher (you) and the advertiser thus:
  • Consumer: Subscribing to feeds makes it possible to review a large amount of online content in a very short time.
  • Publisher: Feeds permit instant distribution of content to multiple destinations and the ability to make it "subscribable."
  • Advertiser: Advertising in feeds overcomes many of the shortcomings that traditional marketing channels encounter including spam filters, delayed distribution, search engine rankings, and general inbox noise.


These can conveniently be grouped into three:
  1. Applications:
  2. Online Services:
  3. Podcast Readers:

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