RSS I: Basics
RSS for Beginners: Back-ground and History
Back in the good old days before it was bought out by AOL, there was a company called Netscape who was investigating a new market: portal sites and content syndication. The idea was simple: a variety of web sites produce relevant content in a (nearly) continuous flow. Portals would be designed to aggregate news and content from those sites and present it to the user all in one page…
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Thus, Netscape invented a format called RSS, which stood for "Remote Site Syndication". This spec allows content producers to publish their news/content in an "RSS feed" (an XML based document) and content consumers to periodically check those feeds for updates.
XML is a special mark up language, just as is HTML. Mark up languages are mechanisms to identify structures in a document.
The structures define the content and the role that content plays in the document: is it a heading? is it a footnote?. HTML uses a set of predefined tags to create the structure, much as we use letters to create words and then words to create documents. XML does not use predefined tags in the same sense that HTML does. In XML the programmer creates the tags.
In HTML, both the tag semantics and the tag set are fixed. An <h1> is always a first level heading and the tag <ati.product.code> is meaningless. The W3C, in conjunction with browser vendors and the WWW community, is constantly working to extend the definition of HTML to allow new tags to keep pace with changing technology and to bring variations in presentation (style sheets) to the Web. However, these changes are always rigidly confined by what the browser vendors have implemented and by the fact that backward compatibility is paramount. And for people who want to disseminate information widely, features supported by only the latest releases of Netscape and Internet Explorer are not useful.
"XML specifies neither semantics nor a tag set. In fact XML is really a meta-language for describing markup languages. In other words, XML provides a facility to define tags and the structural relationships between them. Since there’s no predefined tag set, there can’t be any preconceived semantics. All of the semantics of an XML document will either be defined by the applications that process them or by style sheets (emphasis mine)." — Norman Walsh October 1998
Please note: The last sentence in the quote above is one to keep in mind, We will discuss some of the ramifications of this statement when we discuss RSS readers.
The name "RSS" is an umbrella term for a format that spans several different versions of at least two different (but parallel) formats. The original RSS was designed by Netscape as a format for building portals of headlines to mainstream news sites. It was deemed overly complex for its goals and replaced by a simpler version that was dropped when Netscape lost interest in the portal-making business. UserLand Software picked it up as the basis of its weblogging products and other web-based writing software.
In the meantime, a new format was introduced, based on what the programmers perceived as the original guiding principles of the original RSS format. This format, which is based on RDF, is called RSS 1.0. But UserLand was not involved in designing this new format. UserLand continued to evolve the 0.9x branch, through versions 0.92, 0.93, 0.94, and finally 2.0.
RDF is "a model for metadata, and a syntax so that independent parties can exchange it and use it. What it doesn’t provide though is any Properties of its own. RDF doesn’t define Author or Title or Director or Business-Category. …It seems unlikely that one Property standing by itself is apt to be very useful. It is expected that these will come in packages…These packages are called Vocabularies; it’s easy to imagine Property vocabularies describing books, videos, pizza joints, fine wines, mutual funds, and many other species of Web wildlife." Bray 2001
In other words, RDF is an attempt to add some structure to the data in an XML document. But, the idea of using what would be an enormously high number of Vocabularies seems to take the Simple out of RSS, as well as the creative potential of what applications can be signed for RSS.
RSS is what makes the big news sites (including the BBC, CNET, CNN, Disney, Forbes, Motley Fool, Wired, Red Herring, Salon, Slashdot, ZDNet, and more) possible. That is how most people view RSS’s usefulness. but there have been some very interesting developments in the uses of RSS in the past few years.
There are multiple versions of RSS currently in use, with different numbered versions. The higher number does NOT indicate a more advanced or powerful version of the protocol, as the development of RSS forked some years ago, and there are now two distinct and separate formats.
To summarize, RSS is an application of XML, which makes it possible to syndicate and aggregate online content. RSS files are used to create a data feed which will deliver headlines, links or, in fact, just about anything, to a channel viewer application.These applications are sometimes also called news readers or aggregators. These programs will constantly monitor the RSS feeds to which they are subscribed, and alert the user when new information has been added to a feed.
To effectively use RSS, that is all the technical information about RSS you need to know. There is no need for you to learn how to write XML code or to select which version of RSS you want to use. All that technical knowledge is not relevant to effective RSS marketing or publishing, no matter what anyone else tells you. There are many programs or services available that will handle all that for you, leaving you free to focus on what’s really important.
A term you will see a lot in this ebook and any other discussion of RSS publishing is blog. That’s short for weblog, which is your server’s web log, its record of daily activity on your web server. The reason this term was applied to blog publishing is that, like a web log, the posts are in chronological order, with the oldest at the bottom and the most recent at the top.
For our purposes, a blog, in its purest form is a "frequent, chronological publication of personal thoughts and Web links." A blog now is a mixture of what is happening in a person’s life or their business, articles, and commentary. A blog is a wonderful format for an RSS newsletter and that is what we will discuss later in this book.
I want to talk a little bit about marketing and publishing here as well as their relationship to each other. Marketing is more than advertising. Marketing is any and all communications you have with prospect, clients, customers, subscribers or whatever else you want to call them. Your publishing efforts are a subset of your marketing efforts. When you publish, you are marketing and therefore you need to understand some basic marketing principles if you are already a publisher or intend to become one. We will present those basic marketing concepts throughout this series of articles as appropriate.