What is RSS? A Reverse Delta guide

Really Simple Syndication. Or perhaps, Rich Site Summary… or RDF Site Summary depending on who you ask.

You’ll no doubt have been stumbling upon the acronym RSS (or the little icon ) on your travels about the web. It’s nothing to be scared of – in fact it’s a great tool to have – as a website user and as a website owner.

RSS is a file format that ‘feeds’ information from a site in a given structure. All this means is that other sites, or browsers, or programs can show that information without a visitor actually ‘going to’ that website.

A well used example is the BBC news feed. This ‘feed’ shows the user all the latest news headlines. If the user’s interested, they can click on that headline and get taken straight to that news story. You don’t need to ‘browse’ the BBC pages to get there though. Here’s some of the latest news stories from the BBC, constantly updated in RSS, right here on the Reverse Delta site:

You have the power
The real power of RSS is not having to visit your favourite 20 sites. With a free homepage service like iGoogleMy Yahoo!, all your favourite content can be on one page. This is the big shift. Content comes to the user – not the user going to the content.

How RSS can help your site visitors
It stands to reason that is ‘feeding’ the information to people can be handled by your website at little or no extra effort to you, you’re freeing up your users – empowering them to get your site content in a way that suits them. For example, someone seeking work would be well advised to set their Google homepage to display RSS feeds from all the top recruitment companies in his sector / chosen specialism. That way, on one page, he gets to see all the latest jobs that the recruitment companies offer.

Similarly on an e-commerce site, your user is empowered by being able to keep up with all your latest product range. Ebay uses RSS to great effect – any search you perform in ebay – no matter how specialist – can be subscribed to by RSS. If you search for a 1940s gas mask with Laura Ashley flower print on the strap, you may not find one, but by tracking the RSS feed, you know that one will show up in your feed reader, homepage, smart phone etc. just as soon as someone lists one on eBay!

How RSS can help you
By organising your site in such a way that other sites and services can ‘include’ your content, you’re content grows in value. You’re making it easier for people to get to your content. You’re appearing more like a service to them.

But there’s more to it than this. Those of you familiar with Search Engine Optimisation techniques may realise that you’re getting some welcome ‘link love’. Every time a peer site features your feed, those links to your site help to strengthen your search engine ranking.

The future
It’s worth pointing out that, without getting too philosophical, the web is in a real shift with RSS and feed-based services. Already, websites are starting to provide cutting-edge products and services to subscribers who rarely, if ever, need to visit their site. Content (we’ve said this many times before…) is king.

For example, ‘broadcatching’ is just starting to take off. This is a way of subscribing to content that doesn’t even exist yet. Some sites – including illegal music sharing / download networks (often the drivers of innovation!) have caught on to the fact that people can be ‘fed’ a file once it becomes available.

Blogs were the formative years of RSS, but businesses using RSS feeds as a communication.