RSS primer for your line manager

I was asked to write a short introductory text to explain why the addition of RSS feeds to my current employer’s website was such a big event. Something which described the technique rather than the technology, and put it in a context which a UK Civil Service manager would understand.
I’m taking the risk of offering my completed draft to the blogosphere, for anyone’s comments (which I reserve the right to ignore totally). Please note, this article will probably get published and forgotten, so I’ve avoided any references which might become outdated in the next year or so. Plus, I know I’ve skipped over some technicalities (eg. Gmail offers Atom feeds, not strictly RSS). But the article isn’t intended for people who know there’s a difference. 😉

RSS Feeds
RSS is an increasingly popular way to keep track of the latest updates to your most frequently visited websites. In response to user feedback, we have started to offer a selection of our fastest-moving information as RSS feeds, and plan to offer many more tailored feeds over the coming months.
What is RSS?
RSS – generally taken to stand for ‘really simple syndication’ – is described by its leading exponent, software pioneer Dave Winer as ‘automated web surfing’. The concept first emerged in the late 1990s, but failed to take off despite support from both Microsoft and Netscape. It returned to prominence a few years later, buoyed by the blogging phenomenon, and is now a common feature on news websites.
Its audience was initially restricted to the most computer-literate, as you needed special software to receive and process feeds. But increasingly, RSS functionality is being built into standard software, giving more and more people access to its benefits.
How does it work?
An RSS feed is a small text file, listing the title and description of new items posted on a website, with links to the full items on the original website. The file follows a rigidly defined structure, based on the XML markup language, which makes it easy for computers to scan and process the data within.
News organisations – particularly, in the UK context, the BBC and Guardian – were quick to spot the potential of RSS as a way to ‘push’ the latest news headlines to users. More and more organisations, large and small, are adopting the same techniques to keep stakeholders informed of the latest developments.
Each time a new web page is published, the site’s RSS feed is regenerated. Users tell their RSS-reading software to check the feed for updates on a scheduled basis, perhaps every 30 or 60 minutes. If the software detects any new items, it presents you with the new headlines, often in a pop-up alert box in the corner of the screen. If you are interested in the story, clicking on the alert will take you to the new page on the website.
What can RSS do for me?
Many users find RSS a more efficient way to ‘surf’ the web. The latest articles from your favourite websites are all presented to you in one place, where you can skim quickly through them. You don’t need to go checking the site every day, or perhaps every hour, for any updates; the updates will effectively come to you.
But because RSS is a machine-readable format, there are countless possible ways to make use of a feed. It could be integrated within another website; for example, you could show the latest BBC News headlines on your intranet homepage. Every time a new story is published by the BBC, your intranet would be updated automatically.
RSS is not just limited to blogs and news sites. Its simple structure is finding applications on all sorts of websites.

  • Many search engines allow you to ‘save’ a search query as an RSS feed; so for example, you can receive an alert from Google News each time a particular word or phrase appears in a news article anywhere in the world.
  • You can get an RSS feed of new items in your Google Mail inbox.
  • ‘Podcasting’ – the automated delivery of audio files to your PC and iPod – is driven by RSS.
  • Many ‘social networking’ sites and so-called ‘Web 2.0’ services let you sign up to RSS feeds to monitor updates: for example, new photos uploaded by friends to Yahoo’s Flickr service.
  • Many third-party websites offer RSS feeds for companies who do not yet provide them. For example, you can track the delivery of a parcel by one of the major global courier companies; statements by the Prime Minister’s spokesman; or speeches made in the House of Commons by your MP.

How do I get started?
You no longer have to start by downloading and installing new software. In fact, there may well already be software on your PC which can read RSS data; and if not, there are countless web-based products which work just as well, if not better.
RSS is a key component of Microsoft’s 2006 software releases. New versions of their market-leading Internet Explorer and Office software make it easy to ‘subscribe’ to feeds, and read their contents just as you would read your email. The new Windows Vista operating system includes a desktop ‘sidebar’ for RSS feeds and other content, plus the ability for software to share feed lists. (Some of the lesser-known web browsers – like Firefox, Opera and Apple’s Safari – have also been able to process RSS feeds for quite some time.)
The leading online players – Google, Microsoft and Yahoo – all offer ‘personalised homepage’ services which allow you to put all your favourite RSS feeds on one page. For a more heavy-duty online solution, you might try Bloglines, which has the added benefit of a ‘mobile’ version, letting you read your feeds on your mobile phone or handheld device.
Stand-alone RSS readers are likely to be sidelined as RSS enters the mainstream. It remains to be seen whether popular tools like NetNewsWire, Newsgator or Klipfolio will survive.