RSS feed – Why they are still relevant 17 years on

RSS feed – Why they are still relevant 17 years on

Today we take a look at what an RSS feed is, why you come across them all the time and why they’re useful to have. The RSS icon, although bearing a striking resemblance to the overly familiar WiFi logo, is a different thing entirely. Both are colour agnostic (although RSS tends to be orange) and WiFi has three bars whilst the RSS feed has two bars (just don’t mistake this for a weak WiFi signal).

  RSS Logo WIFI

What does it do?

RSS stands for Rich Site Summary, although it has by popular convention also become known as Really Simple Syndication. Don’t be surprised if you see both names flying around, as there’s no unanimous preference.

In order to best understand an RSS feed, think of it like a news version of social media. If someone wanted to keep updated on their 200 friends’ activities, you wouldn’t have time to look at each person’s profile one by one. Instead, you would look at the news page which shows all of the latest updates. Instead of using your social media profile, an RSS feed broadcasts its updates to any RSS subscriber following the feed. Any newly published content will then present a notification to the viewer. The difference between social media and RSS is that RSS surfaced almost a decade before either Facebook (2004) or Twitter (2006), in 1997; although it didn’t take the form we recognise today until 1999.

Whilst originally intended for human digest, websites now often source content from third party sites via RSS. For example, a tennis website might want to include RSS feeds from newspapers, specifically feeds about tennis tournaments, to ensure it has any breaking news featured on it. The publishers of the posts tend to be happy for it to appear on your site, by being credited they will gain readership from this. Not every website is suitable, for example, the BBC would not want to have an RSS feed from its competitors featured on its site.

Anyone can produce an RSS feed. Typically it is more advantageous for sites with a good level of notoriety and quality content; only then are they likely to get others include the feed on their websites. Although the smaller websites may attempt to create their own feeds as well, they are less likely to reap real reward from this, instead favouring the use of RSS readers on their site, thereby including external quality content on their sites.

How to add RSS feeds to your website?

In order to display RSS feeds on your website, you need to have software designed to read the relevant sites and select suitable content. Depending on your purpose, and Content Management System (CMS), a plugin may suffice, although in other circumstances bespoke solutions may be the best option.

In the case of the AHSN Network website, we created a custom RSS aggregation tool to automatically publish information found on any of the 15 subsidiary AHSN’s websites’ RSS feeds, that also source content from social media.

AHSN RSS

There is some developer wizardry behind the scenes, but with the assistance of your CMS, this is easy to manage from a user perspective. The appearance of different plugins will vary, as will the level of functionality offered, but here is a preview of the system used to manage this in our example.

RSS AHSN

As you can see, pretty straight forward.

Why should you use RSS?

Whether releasing your own feed or syndicating someone else’s, RSS feeds are particularly useful if you are part of a wider network.

It’s also particularly useful as the stream of content being produced worldwide gets more and more out of control. Instead of trying to churn out mass amounts of useless content, this allows content producers to have contemporary information on a wide range of topics whilst having time to work a single quality piece of content. Likewise, the art of social media is the reciprocation of content sharing. By sharing meaningful content from other people with your audience, you increase the likelihood of your site being shared with others and your traffic increasing.

RSS isn’t a new thing, it’s been around for seventeen years, but it is useful. As our lives get busier and even more information gets thrown at us, we need a way to find content that is relevant to us to focus on what matters to our audience.

Stephen Collins