It wasn't much longer then six months ago that I had no idea what these terms were. I understood what XML was because I had read a book about it but I had no idea how it all worked with syndication of content. Just as I learnt how trackbacks work by actually using them I did the same with syndication. I also took the time to read the definitions of the terms and as usual the Wikipedia entries on XML, RSS, Web Syndication and Web Feed are a good place to start.
In a nutshell you use RSS (Really Simple Syndication) to syndicate or subscribe to the feed of a website, blog or almost any media content online (not just articles, it can be music, video or almost any digital media). By syndicating you subscribe to the feed of the site which means you do not have to go visit the website to read the latest content. Instead you use feed reading software or a website to read the latest articles. Instead of going to each of your favourite sites individually you can collect all the feeds of the sites (provided they make them available) in one place. The purpose of syndication is to therefore make it more efficient for you to consume your favourite content.
If you are not into the technical side of the Internet your don't need to know much about XML. It's basically the formatting language that software and websites use to distribute the content to your feed reader. If you know nothing about HTML then you probably don't really need to know much about XML either. Just understand that behind syndication is the language XML.
The best way to learn is by practice and example so let me tell you exactly how I use RSS.
Feed Reading Software
At the moment I use RSSOwl which is software you install on to your computer. Like all software there is a learning curve to using RSSOwl however once you have subscribed to your first feed it becomes very easy. If you get really stuck try the help menu or check the website out for guidelines.
There are other feed reading software programs out there and a Google search for RSS reader will bring up many options. I tried three different programs and stuck with RSSOwl because it was free, light weight and functional for what I wanted. There are prettier and more functional feed readers out there and I'll leave it up to you to choose your favourite.
Web Based Feed Reading
With a standalone software feed reader like RSSOwl you have to be on the computer you installed the software to in order to have access to your feeds. Because of this limitation many people choose to use a web based feed reader and the most popular is Bloglines. Bloglines works much like feed reading software except because it is entirely based on the Internet you can access your syndicated feeds online from any computer connected to the web. You can also share your feeds with other people or search other people's feed lists to see what is popular.
Subscribing to a Blog
To continue with my example…of course I subscribe to my own feed, the RSS of this blog. At the top right corner you will see an orange RSS link button. To subscribe to my feed all you do is copy and paste that link into feed reading software or a web based reader like bloglines. You may also have to name the feed and strangely enough this feed is called "Entrepreneur's Journey". The RSS feed link for this site looks like this - http://feeds.feedburner.com/EntrepreneursJourney - and if you click it you will get the XML output of this blog. That's the stuff I told you about that you don't really need to understand, but take a look by clicking the link if you are interested. Note that I use a special third party service called FeedBurner that adds extra features to my feed output and most importantly it provides me with statistics on how many people subscribe to my blog.
All blogs will have a link which you can subscribe to. It might be called Atom, or RSS, or simply Syndicate, but they all do the same thing. The reason there are so many names is because there are different standards to create web syndication services (much like the old BETA vs VHS video format competition). At the moment it appears that RSS is certainly winning the standards war so you will mostly see the orange RSS links everywhere.
Syndication is for More than Just Blogs
Blogs certainly started the syndication craze but it is well and truly breaking out now. I wouldn't call it mainstream just yet since not many people know how to use it but most of the big web companies are making subscription feeds available for almost any content. Chances are if you are reading an article from a big site you can subscribe to a feed that distributes those articles. Just look for that RSS symbol.
Besides article distribution a new craze has launched called Podcasting. I'm not going to go into Podcasting in this article since it is a subject that deserves its own article. For the purposes of understanding how Podcasting is related to syndication all you need to know is that a Podcast is an audio show, like radio but usually focused on voice because music is copyrighted. Unless you have the rights to the music you may get into trouble if you broadcast it in a podcast. People use syndication to subscribe to a Podcast audio show which they can listen to on their computer or download to an mp3 player.
Update: If you want to learn about podcasts please read - What is a Podcast and How Can I Use One?
RSS is designed to make your Internet life easier. At the moment it's worthwhile to become familiar with this technology simply because you are going to be seeing a lot more of it. If you can keep abreast of the technology wave you will have less frustration when using the Internet.
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Image: RSS Fountain by Orin Zebest
3rd March 2009