Features: What is an RSS feed and how does it work? | Inoreader

What is an RSS feed and how does it work?

So much content, so little time. How do we see it all? And how do we see it efficiently?

After all, time is a valuable commodity and Internet users face a daily dilemma as to how to spend their precious 24 hours in the best way possible. Hit every website at all costs, but also without the repetitive cycle of visiting and re-visiting the same sites multiple times per day. In today’s era saturated with information, the answer in finding a satisfactory middle ground between our lives and online habits lies in technology that was first pioneered at the dawn of the new millennium.

It’s RSS – this shouldn’t come to you as a surprise. It’s in the title and it’s why you’re here. We’re here to give you the speed course in RSS and why it’s still useful to talk about RSS today. RSS is the basis upon which a lot of new tools and technologies have been created. Social media feeds, YouTube subscriptions, podcast apps and even the ‘new releases’ functions of video streaming platforms are all indebted to the humble RSS for existing in the first place.

What is RSS?

Before we go anywhere near the significance of RSS or its legacy within the Internet landscape, it behooves to define RSS – to be on the same page as it were. RSS derives from the phrase ‘really simple syndication’ (though in certain corners of the web, there will be those who insist that the abbreviation stands for ‘rich site summary’). What RSS does is reduce the content of a website to base components generated within simple text files. Articles, updates and other posts then become easy to browse in a simplified feed, which is often accessed through a so-called ‘feed reader’. In the early days of the Internet, RSS incorporated only text elements, but as the capabilities of the web increased, RSS followed suit. Keeping true to its minimalist presentation of information, RSS nevertheless incorporated more media such as videos and images. All this information would then be streamed into a single feed managed and edited by the user. It’s the first instance of personalized curation online well before current social media feeds. Users are able to select the websites they frequent most and build a one-stop feed to review their favorite content.

What information does RSS offer?

Simplicity is key in order to understand RSS and explain its popularity during the initial boom of website creation and content proliferation. Using RSS feeds is intuitive and felt native to the early informational ecosystem. The need to curate our feeds still exists to this day and how RSS did it at the time was to separate RSS information into a single file on a website, which is coded in XML. Whereas the regular content posted on a page can be read by people, the RSS information is read by a program – the RSS aggregator – and presented in a chronological order of newest to oldest. Notifications in the RSS feed are stripped down to their essential components: Title: The RSS feed features the title of the article as it appears on the website you’re following.
Description: Descriptions can vary in nature. Sometimes, a website might provide a summary of the article or update in question. More often than not, users can access articles in their entirety in the feed itself complete with all additional media content in the body of the post. Link: A direct link to the article or post, so that users can read it on the website proper.

What problems does RSS solve?

To put it simply – RSS creates order out of chaos. RSS gives readers a tool to manage subscriptions in a way that saves time, accounts for discrepancies in upload schedules and doesn’t overwhelm. Without an RSS service, readers have to hop from website to website to check on new posts. Not only does it waste time, but captures readers in a tiring loop. Email subscriptions are always an option, yet you run the risk of drowning your inbox with emails that you never open and directly delete. Another option is to rely on social media channels to keep up with content. The chief benefit is that social media is not as obtrusive as email notifications but tends to be unpredictable as to what articles and posts become popular and thus more likely to pop up on your feed.
RSS ticks off all convenience boxes. It allows you to deep-dive into the content of your selected websites without missing an update. RSS aggregators refresh and update even if you’re not online and you have to visit one place to see all content. RSS eliminates the burden on users to remember all the websites they want to visit. Instead, they have new valuable content come to them directly.

How does RSS work?

RSS requires website publishers to maintain a list of newly published items so users can then access this list at their own leisure in order to stay up to date with its content. These feeds, however, are not directly accessible to users and instead require a program to perform this function. Programs are often called RSS aggregators or RSS readers. You might also encounter RSS feeds referred to as RSS channels, but they all relate to the same technology. With an RSS aggregator, users can subscribe to multiple feeds simultaneously. The aggregator has the task to go through each feed, note new updates and return additions in a chronological way for users to peruse. If a certain title catches your eye, simply click on it and go to the relevant site.

How is the RSS file generated?

Let’s compare notes so far. RSS is intuitive, ubiquitous and deeply benefits your site on several metrics – visibility, audience and traffic. If your initial reaction is, I must have this on my website – this is where you will find actionable advice on how to generate an RSS feed. WordPress sites are truly blessed in this regard since the platform automatically generates an RSS feed. All you have to do is attach ‘/feed/’ to the domain name, and there’s your feed. No additional steps are required. You have a similar experience, if you’re using other big content management programs as they automatically generate an RSS feed. At the moment of publication of a new post, these platforms will update the RSS feed themselves so you don’t have to do this by hand. Blogger, LiveJournal, Movable Type, and Radio – and other blogging platforms – automatically create feeds as well and simplify the process on the creator side. The story is a little bit different for authors of custom sites. Authors are required to generate and update XML files manually. Because XML is relatively uncomplicated to learn, authors can pick up some basic coding skills and create their feed’s XML file on their own. Many opt for a specific tool for the job and authors are spoiled for choice as there are several applications, paid and free of charge, such as Software Garden, FetchRSS and RSS Builder.

How to access RSS feeds?

Websites, which prioritize readership engagement and the cultivation of return readers, advertise their RSS feeds readily. They do this either through an icon on the navigation bar up top or through the social media plugins at the end of a post, where you’re able to share on Twitter or Facebook. At the height of the blogging craze, it was common to see an orange button either labeled RSS or XML, which upon clicking directs you to the RSS feed file. Another way to access the feed is via a “Syndicate This” link. With the RSS feed obtained, you add the link to the RSS aggregator choice and that’s it. It’s also worth noting that websites with a frequent and sizeable output of content (news sites mostly) offer users a choice between different thematic feeds on broad subjects that narrow the type of content you receive in your aggregator. Speaking of aggregators, some programs come straight away with an available list of RSS feeds for the most visited news sites, to which you can subscribe. These days it’s not as clear-cut to know, if a site supports a feed. Classic RSS is cycling out of fashion and as a result websites tend to keep their RSS links available within their code rather than anywhere on the site itself.

How to find out which sites use RSS?

If you’re unsure whether a site supports RSS, a little online digging is all it takes to find out. You don’t have to be a hacker to run a check for RSS. In Inoreader, simply type the domain of the website you are trying to subscribe to. If it has an RSS feed we will try to find it for you. Doing it manually while in Chrome is also as straightforward as it gets and it requires you take a quick peek under the hood and into the source code. It takes two steps to complete:

  1. Getting to the source code requires you to right-click on a website’s page and select ‘view page source’ towards the end of the menu.
  2. Once you’ve opened that page, it’s a matter of employing the Ctrl+F search function and type in RSS. Either your search brings back no results, or you will see an RSS section with the URL to the feed. From there copy the link and use it to subscribe to the website through your preferred RSS reader.

The Future of RSS

At first glance, it may appear as though RSS has become completely obsolete – a relic of a by-gone era – but nothing truly dies on the Internet. Instead, RSS is seeing a resurgence under a new format much better suited to the current informational landscape. RSS solutions are stepping away from the catch-all approach and adapting to specific services. We’re familiar with the various apps that capture the latest episodes of your favorite podcasts into one chronological feed. This practice is already gaining traction with YouTube, Reddit and even weather updates. This brings to our next point – RSS has outgrown browsers. Nowhere is this more evident than Mozilla’s decision to discontinue native RSS support for Firefox 64 back in 2018 due to a lack of utility. The less people use RSS the likelier it becomes to see a wave of similar announcements from other browsers. Die-hard fans of the old RSS days need not panic, though. Extensions and add-ons may extend the shelf life of RSS for a little while longer.

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