RSS: Demystifying RSS Technologies

Dean Allemang, chief scientist at TopQuadrant, Inc., demystifies newsfeed technologies and describes what unique value they provide in the information landscape of the Web.

Dean Allemang, chief scientist at TopQuadrant, Inc., demystifies newsfeed technologies and describes what unique value they provide in the information landscape of the Web.

As the Web matures and everyone becomes familiar with its capabilities, we are seeing more and more sophisticated ways to deliver information and link it together into a true web. One technology contributing to this phenomenon goes by the name “RSS.”

While RSS isn’t particularly new (early versions date back to the ’90s), it has fairly recently come into its own, becoming familiar to a wide range of Web users. RSS links, also known as feeds, can be seen on the front page of any major newspaper. Government agencies commonly distribute information using RSS. Social networking sites like LiveJournal, MySpace and Facebook are tightly integrated with RSS in a number of ways.

But What Is It?

RSS is the name of one of several technologies for sharing rapidly-changing information over the Web. These technologies are known as newsfeed technologies.

But newsfeed technologies (especially RSS) have a lot of technological baggage that makes them more mysterious to everyday users than they have to be. The “RS” in “RSS” used to stand for really simple, but nowadays, RSS seems anything but!

What is the difference between all the versions of RSS (e.g., 0.9, 1.0, 2.0)? What about “Atom,” another newsfeed technology that seems to appear often alongside RSS? More fundamentally, what can a casual, or even serious, Web user do with newsfeed technologies? And finally, and most importantly for non-profit information providers, how can — and should — these technologies be used to publish information so as to get the most value from using them?

Reading a News Feed

This idea of a newsfeed isn’t new with the Web; newspapers have worked with the idea of a newsfeed for years. The latest headlines are printed sequentially on a strip of paper, which are read and torn off by reporters in a press room.

But how should this work for a newsfeed on the Web? The usual Web experience is to point the browser at a Web page and see what’s there. But how should a Web browser handle a feed? If it just shows the current top headline, then previous headlines, even just minutes old, will never be seen.

For this reason, most modern Web browsers include a specialized capability for processing newsfeeds. When the browser is directed to a newsfeed (such as clicking on a “feeds” link on The New York Times Web page), it recognizes that it is a feed, and presents the top several stories — along with headlines, source, date of submission and the first line of the full story when available. Figure 1 was produced, for example, by the newsfeed reader in Mozilla Firefox.

Newsfeeds for the Masses

A lot of information on the Web has a life span of weeks, months or even years. Titles of books on Amazon don’t change; prices change, but only on a slow schedule. There isn’t any need for an Amazon user to check back each day to check the current price of the Harry Potter books.


But What Is RSS?

Be sure to read Part I, Demystifying RSS Technologies, to learn more about RSS terminology and metadata.


But there is some information on the Web that is relatively short-lived. The best and oldest example of this is news: a news article from yesterday is, well, yesterday’s news. Its value decreases rapidly with age, from something that everyone is rushing to see down to something of interest only to historians and researchers – sometimes in a matter of hours.

It is this sort of volatile information that newsfeed technologies are designed to deal with. In addition to news stories, other examples of volatile information include weather reports, earthquakes and blog updates.

Web Page or Newsfeed?

While a newsfeed is a bit more complicated than a Web page, it isn’t difficult to understand. Like a Web page, a newsfeed is specified by a URL. But unlike a Web page, a newsfeed is expected to change on a regular basis, even minute by minute.

Let’s take a simple example: the headline in the sports section in The New York Times. At one moment, the headline could refer to a story about a retired Olympian. But a few minutes later, when a new report comes in, the headline refers to a story about an unusual performance in the World Series. The entire content of the headline changes to reflect the most current news.

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