Best Practice Ezine #85 – RSS (Really Simple Syndication)

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Best Practice Ezine #85 – RSS (Really Simple Syndication)

The purpose of this ezine is threefold:

1) To introduce RSS to those who have not yet got an XML reader.

1a) To mention that I now have an RSS feed to the ezines on my site

2) To exhort everyone to customise their IE home page

3) To provide a little background to RSS

1) RSS Concept

At its best, RSS is like having your very own researcher trawling sites for the latest news.  The concept behind an RSS feed is that once you add a site to the RSS reader, there is no need to keep returning to check for updates, instead you can just glance at your RSS reader.  The result of investing in a little setup time is that you get your own online portal or new feed.

Ideal applications of this technology are keeping up-to-date with scores in baseball and NFL, cricket and football, snooker or tennis – whatever your sporting interest.  Naturally, news, stock reports, weather and traffic would also be topics that lend themselves to RSS.  Indeed, the more feeds that you add to your reader, the more sense it makes to use this RSS technology rather than rely on a forum, newsgroup or just keep returning to the source site.

RSS Readers or Aggregators

What the RSS reader does is render the xml / xsl documents to display a heading, link and a description of the feeder articles.  RSS readers or aggregators are plentiful, just Google: ‘RSS Readers’.  Moreover, these clients are free which leads me to think:
a) The underlying reader programs cannot be difficult to build.
b) How do the RSS reader manufacturers make their money?

RSS readers come in two forms, online or dedicated programs that you install locally and then add your RSS feeds.  In their online form, RSS readers often combine other features such as home page.  Trust me, as soon as you install RSS, you will keep spotting websites with little orange rectangles saying: RSS or XML.

IE 7 has a built in RSS reader, look on the toolbar, also in the IE 7 Favorites.

1a) Guy’s RSS feed for Ezines

So far, I have just introduced an RSS link just for my Ezines, if this succeeds, I will add RSS feeds for other areas of my site.

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2) Customize your Home Page

Whether or not you get an offline RSS reader, I challenge you to setup your home page with, or similar.  My friend ‘Mad’ Mick tells me Yahoo have ‘My Yahoo’, however I must be the only person on the planet who does not go to Yahoo so I don’t know if it’s any good.  I suspect all ‘My Home Page Portals’ are equally good, it comes down to the skill in selecting the links for ones interests.  Nevertheless, I am sure that there is fierce loyalty between the different portal offerings.

One bonus of setting up this style of home page in this way is that you can access it from any machine with internet access.  Ideal when you are travelling.

3) RSS files

Those of you who know me well, probably realize that I am up to my usual trick of helping people get started.  I am by no means an expert on RSS and this technology has been available for several years, it’s just that one day I woke up and thought, ‘I must learn about RSS if only to add feeds on my web site’.  What I discovered is that the RSS feeds are controlled by two files, rss.xml which contains the URLs and an rss.xsl file with the definition of how to render the RSS.  Sites provide the .xsl file for you to add to your offline reader.  The only difficult in installing an offline RSS reader is that you may need .NET Framework, no worries it’s free from Microsoft.

RSS is also a specification.  The most popular version in spring 2006 is RSS 2.0, however there is an RSS 3.0 standard under discussion.  The early versions 0.91 and 0.92 were designed by Netscape.  In fact version 2.0 is very similar to 0.92 but allows more channel options in the XML structure, for example language, image and cloud.  In all RSS versions, the only required elements are link, title and description.

RSS and Webmasters

At last, RSS had given me a killer reason to dust off the XML textbook that has been gathering dust in my bookcase.  As a result I have created a RSS feed for my ezine.  In particular, this will be useful for readers to check if there is a new ezine because sometime I miss a week due to pressure of other work.

What webmasters need is a program which identifies new or changed pages and automatically saves the data to an .xml file.  The .xsl file in the reader then displays the updated url to the reader.  To emphasise it is the .xml file that has the http link to the real source.  Clearly only webmasters and not users need to worry about what happens under the covers.  At the moment, on my websites I use RSSTool, this is a macro / form which I downloaded from the FrontPage site.  Either RSSTool lacks perfection or I lack the skill to tweak it.  Therefore if you know of a good RSS / XML creator do email me.

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