What really is an RSS feed?

If you have been trying to make sense of all the Web 2.0 hype, you probably have wondered what RSS is. To me an RSS feed is:

  • a mechanism to inform people of changes to your website content
  • an XML document (that conforms to the RSS specification),
  • accessible over HTTP
  • that automatically updates when you update your website content

Let's use a sample from the RSS Specification page at Harvard. The location of the RSS feed file is:

http://media-cyber.law.harvard.edu/blogs/gems/tech/rss2sample.xml

Once you point your RSS Reader to the above location, it reads the feed and displays it in human readable format. Here is what my favorite Reader, Netvibes displays:

Feed Reader

Lets take the XML file apart. The channel represents a feed.

<title>Liftoff News</title>
    <link>http://liftoff.msfc.nasa.gov/</link>
    <description>Liftoff to Space Exploration.</description>
    <language>en-us</language>
    <pubDate>Tue, 10 Jun 2003 04:00:00 GMT</pubDate>

The title ("Liftoff News") usually shows up as the feed title in your reader. The link is a URL to your main site/blog etc.

The most important pieces in the feed are items. These show up as a list in your reader. If this was a feed of your blog, then each item would represent a blog post.

<item>
      <title>The Engine That Does More</title>
      <link>http://liftoff.msfc.nasa.gov/news/2003/news-VASIMR.asp</link>
      <description>Before man travels to Mars, NASA hopes to design new engines
        that will let us fly through the Solar System more quickly.  The proposed
        VASIMR engine would do that.</description>
      <pubDate>Tue, 27 May 2003 08:37:32 GMT</pubDate>
      <guid>http://liftoff.msfc.nasa.gov/2003/05/27.html#item571</guid>
    </item>

Each item has a title, link, description and guid. The title ("The Engine That Does More") appears in the feed. The description is what appears when you hover your mouse over the item title in most readers. The link is where you are redirected to when you click the item (which is the whole purpose of publishing the feed if you ask me). I am assuming the guid is so that the reader can tell two posts apart even if they have the same title.

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