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How Do RSS Feeds Work?

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 3/5/2011

RSS feeds are like beacons, displaying updates from your favorite websites via your preferred RSS feed reader and thereby saving you the effort of visiting the website!

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    RSS: A Beacon for Your Website

    RSS feeds provide a means of communicating updates to your website content with users, without them having to open your site in their browser.

    This is done by means of a feed reader (such as Google Reader), typically an email client or web service, but it can also be a dedicated aggregator app on your computer or mobile device.

    The feed acts as a sort of beacon for your website – whenever your site is updated, the RSS feed will update to reflect this change. By subscribing to the feed with your feed reader, this change is displayed for you, enabling you to either read the update there and then, or click on the provided link to read it in context on the originating web page.

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    What is RSS?

    RSS is a means of providing a summary of your website content that includes details of authors, date of publishing and perhaps a short sample of content as well as links for reading the content in full in your browser.

    Built using XML specification (usually by automated scripting processes on website servers) RSS feeds can be used to update not just standard text-based website updates but also to manage the downloading of podcasts, for following image feeds from photo gallery websites and even for sharing data via peer-to-peer networks.

    Its use has become widespread since the first half of the 2000s, and it now plays a central role in providing website updates to all manner of devices.

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    Structure of an RSS Feed

    How Do RSS Feeds Work? An RSS feed is an XML file made up of various elements that identify it as being in RSS format as well as providing information from the website you have subscribed to.

    • Header – this identifies the XML file as an RSS feed
    • Title – this provides the title of the feed, often the website title
    • Link – the actual URL of the feed, which might be
    • Description – a description of what the feed includes

    In addition, each item in the RSS feed will be grouped with the following items:

    • Item Title – the title of a specific item
    • Date – the date the item was published
    • Author – the creator of the item
    • Item Description – a description, excerpt or summary of the item contents

    You can see how these elements are arranged in the illustration on the right.

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    Feed Readers

    There are various ways in which you might read an RSS feed. The most common is probably on a website such as Google, where various RSS feeds can be displayed to provide custom news updates.

    Traditionally dedicated feed readers were made available but their functionality was soon incorporated into email clients – you can set up Thunderbird and Outlook Express to subscribe to RSS feeds and these will let you know when they have been updated.

    Meanwhile there are also RSS feeds available for mobile phones and tablet devices, while media players like Apple iTunes and Microsoft Zune client can be used to subscribe to and download podcasts thanks to RSS.

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    Subscribing to an RSS Feed

    You can subscribe to an RSS feed very easily, and the same process is in place across desktop, web and mobile feed readers. All you need is the feed URL, which you can find by searching your favorite website for the familiar RSS feed icon (as seen on the right), right-clicking and selecting Copy link… from the context menu. This can then be pasted into the feed reader’s “new subscription” dialogue box.

    RSS feeds work by presenting the data of the feed in a single, regularly updated file that an RSS feed reader can check periodically. Most feed readers will let you specify how regularly you would like this checked, as well as let you arrange your feeds into sections categories of your choosing.

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    Source: Author's own experience

    Screenshots provided by writer.