Syndication, including RSS (Real Simple Syndication) is a powerful way for users to keep track of what's happening on your website. This article will cover the varied ways that it is possible set up a website so that readers can get information about newly updated site content, publicize these feeds, and measure who uses them.
by: By Michelle Murrain
Courtesy of www.ictknowledgebase.org.uk/
Really Simple Syndication (RSS, which is also used for Rich Site Summary, and RDF Site Summary) is a method by which you can provide up-to-the-minute information about the content on your website. This content can be read in RSS newsreaders (such as Netvibes, Google Reader, Newsfire and others). See the Knowledgebase article What is RSS? for more information on the basics of RSS. If you update your web content frequently, having an RSS feed is an important way for your readers and constituents keep up with what you've been writing, or what your organisation is doing.
In terms of the technical details, RSS is either an XML text file that is updated regularly, or a dynamically generated (by a Content Management System) XML file that gives the news reader information about the content on your site. Usually, this XML file contains data about the last few posts/new pages that you've created on your site.
Right now, the syndication standards are a little confusing, although in general, most software that is responsible for either creating or reading syndication makes this mostly not an important issue. RSS has gone through a number of versions and revisions, from 0.90 to 2.0. Most sites are using either RSS 1.0 or RSS 2.0, although some older sites might still be using an older variant. Atom is a similar syndication standard, used by some CMS platforms, but is not as common, and has not been fully adopted broadly. You can learn more about Atom vs. RSS on the Wikipedia page for Atom. For the purposes of this article, all of these formats can be considered together. The format of a syndication file is up to either the software that runs your website, or you, if you have to generate the file yourself.
Syndication became popular because websites began using Content Management Systems (CMS) to manage content – and those CMS included RSS feeds of new or updated content. This is, by far, the easiest way for one to provide syndication of your website content. All of the blogging platforms, such as WordPress, Drupal, Movable Type, TypePad, Blogger, and others include a method for syndicating content. Below are the Syndication options for WordPress:
And here are Drupal's options:
All modern CMS platforms, whether free and open source, or commercial, have some form of syndication. If you have a website, and you want people to be able to read new content via syndication, the best way to go about this is to move your content onto a CMS. Choosing a CMS is beyond the scope of this article, but in general, if you are more interested in a blog type site, a platform like WordPress or Movable Type will be preferable (or a commercial service such as Blogger or Wordpress.com). If you need a site that makes categorization of content easy, then a CMS such as Joomla or Drupal might be the best bet. All of these platforms have syndication as a built in feature.
However, if for some reason, you can't (or don't want) to migrate your website to a modern CMS, it is still possible to create RSS feeds that people can use to keep up with your content. There are several ways to generate a RSS file without a CMS. If you are technologically savvy, you could build that file, using a model file. RSS is actually fairly straightforward:
Here is some example text for an RSS 2.0 file (from the Wikipedia page on RSS):
<description>Liftoff to Space Exploration.</description>
<pubDate>Tue, 10 Jun 2003 04:00:00 GMT</pubDate>
<lastBuildDate>Tue, 10 Jun 2003 09:41:01 GMT</lastBuildDate>
<generator>Weblog Editor 2.0</generator>
<description>How do Americans get ready to work with Russians aboard the
International Space Station? They take a crash course in culture, language
and protocol at Russia's Star City.</description>
<pubDate>Tue, 03 Jun 2003 09:39:21 GMT</pubDate>
The format is fairly straightforward. The first set of XML tags relate to the site itself – where to find it, a description, and then data about the site. Then there are individual items, with titles, links and descriptions. You could edit this file in a text editor, and copy it to your web server, where it was accessible publicly (like http://www.yourorg.uk/feed.xml). More information on the details of what each of these tags mean can be found at the W3 Validator.
It's likely, however, that you don't want to go through this process. There are other alternatives. There are several tools out there which can help you with this process:
So now, either by using a CMS, editing a file manually, or using one of these services or software, you now have a feed. That feed must have some URL – either on your site, or on the site of a service. How do you get the word out about that feed?
Of course, the first step is to put somewhere prominently on your site a link to the feed, with “RSS” or “Subscribe to our feed” or some other language making it clear that you have a feed. Some people use the symbol:
At this point, most people understand that symbol to mean “here's the link to our RSS feed”. You can send out your feed in your newsletter as well.
There are other ways to publicize your feed. There are many directories of feeds, and you can submit your feed to those directories. For maximal impact, make sure that you choose directories and categories that are appropriate. The site RSS Specifications has a great list of lots of directories where you can submit your feeds – RSS Submissions
Once you've created a feed, and publicized it, how do you know who is reading it? It's important to know how many subscribers you have, especially if you provide the full text of articles or blog entries in your RSS feed. Many people read the entire entry on their newsreader, and don't go directly to the website. In fact, your most loyal readers are most likely to read your content that way – so knowing how many of those you have is a very important part of any site metrics you do.
Any web stats program that analyses your web server log files will end up including the feed file (if it is a file) – because requests to that file are just like any other request for a web file. You can count how many times that file was accessed, by how many unique users. A better way to track who reads your feeds is by using a service such as Feedburner, which takes your feed, and gives you a different (feedburner) URL to publicize (it is just a pass-through, but it makes it possible to measure the feeds use.) Here is an example of the kinds of data Feedburner can provide:
It can provide data on the number of subscribers, how they read their feeds, and whether or not they click through to your website. This is a free service, although there are premium services available as well. It's very easy to use – although it is important to implement early on – to advertise the feedburner feed, rather than your feed directly.
Syndication of web content is fast becoming the way that most people track the content of websites. The days of people coming back again and again to visit your site to see what's new has passed, so if you want people to know what new content you are producing, giving them feeds is essential.
Copyright © 2007 Michelle Murrain
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.