- Category: July - August 2009
RSS files are one of the most widely used XML formats on the Web. They provide an open format for syndicating all types of content, including podcasts.
A general overview of RSS advantages
RSS files let you create news feeds that can include headlines, links and article summaries from your website content. Since it is a standard format, others can then subscribe to your newsfeed with many popular tools, or incorporate your content into their site.
The big benefit of RSS is that individuals’ opt-in to content that interest them therefore, totally controlling the flow of information that they receive. If they feel that the quality of the content in the feed declines, users can simply remove the feed from their RSS reader, thereby plugging the flow of any additional updates from that source. The RSS reader therefore acts as an aggregator, allowing users to view and scan multiple content streams in a timely fashion.
Publishers and webmasters provide content and news in an RSS feed. Users view the content of interest in an RSS reader or news aggregator. The aggregator or reader contains the collection of feeds that are of interest to the user. As the RSS feed is updated the content in the reader or aggregator updates with the new information.
In addition to syndicating story summaries and headlines, RSS files are now being used to syndicate audio content. This is most commonly called podcasting. In podcasting, RSS files are used to summarize the contents of the audio programs.
Demystifying RSS files
The RSS format originated with the sites My Netscape and My UserLand. Dave Winer, an influential developer and early blogger, has shepherded the format through several incarnations. Just what exactly are these RSS files?
No one agrees to what RSS really stands for. It originally stood for RDF Site Summary. Some call the format Rich Site Summary. With the 2.0 specification, it's called Really Simple Syndication.
According to Dave Winer, author of the current spec, "There is no consensus on what RSS stands for, so it's not an acronym, it's a name. Later versions of this spec may say it's an acronym, and hopefully this won't break too many applications."
RSS files typically contain four types of elements: channel, image, items and text input. Many news feeds use only the channel and item elements.
RSS files are used for publishing all types of information on the Internet, but are primarily a tool for sharing web site news. A podcast news feed provides information about the latest shows in a podcast.
RSS files define a channel that contains items. The channel provides Meta information about your RSS newsfeed, and describes your content as a whole. Items are the content of the channel/your individual programs. Each item provides information about one program, in MP3 format, located on your web server.
The channel element contains metadata that describe the channel itself, including what the channel is and who created it. The channel is a required element that includes the name of the channel, its description, its language, and a URL. The URL is normally used to point to the website associated with this information source.
In addition to the required title, link and description elements, channels can have other optional tags. These include PICS Rating, Copyright Identifier, Publication Date, and Webmaster.
The image element is an optional element that is usually used to include the logo of the channel provider. The default size for the image is 88 pixels wide by 31 pixels high.
The image's title, URL, link, width, and height tags allow this section to be rendered as HTML. This can provide a "brand" for your news feed.
Items, the most important elements in a channel, contain the content of the channel. While the other elements in the channel are usually static, the news items typically change frequently.
It used to be that channels were limited to fifteen items. This is no longer a requirement, but it's still a reasonable limitation for most uses.
Items require three elements: title, link and description. In typical use, the RSS title is usually rendered as a headline, the description as a one or two paragraph "teaser", and the URL as a hyperlink to the full article or file.
For the purpose of podcasting, an enclosure element is added to the item. The title is the name of the unique episode of your podcast. The link points to the web page that discusses this individual show. The description is a good place to note what the podcast is about. The enclosure URL points to the MP3 file for this show.
Channels can also contain a text input area, with only one allowed per channel. The purpose of text input sections is to allow users to query or respond to a channel. In HTML, text input areas are rendered a form. Text input areas are not frequently used. One possible use is to create a form for people to subscribe to your newsletter.
After the four above-mentioned elements, the RSS file must be closed in order to be valid.
Versions of RSS
The RSS version 0.91 is one of the older versions of the format, but is still one of the most popular. In addition to being very established, there are many tools for working with version 0.91. There are 1.0 and 2.0 versions that add capabilities. New feeds should probably use the version 2.0. This is especially important for podcasting, because podcasts depend on an element added in the 2.0 spec, enclosures.
Creating RSS files
Creating an RSS file is as easy as taking an example file, opening it up, and entering your own information. In practice, most RSS files are generated by applications automatically. For example, RSS files are generated by almost all blogging programs and services. Open-source tools are available for working with RSS in Java, PHP and PERL.
After you create or generate your RSS file, you should test it to make sure it is valid before publishing it. There are several validation services available online. Just paste in your RSS feed's URL and submit it and the sites will validate your RSS file.
Publish your RSS Feed
After you've validated your feed, you can publish it publicly. Post it to a public area of your site, and provide a link to it. Many publishers use the logo to indicate that an RSS feed for the site is available.
The main purpose of RSS feeds is for content syndication. You publish your content in a standard format, and then anybody in the world and subscribe to your feed and get your news automatically.
In order for people to find out about your news feed, you need to publicize it. In addition to using the XML logo prominently, you will want to submit your RSS feed to the larger RSS directories, and to any niche directories. Submit podcasts to the Podcast Directory at Podcasting News and other sites.
In addition to directories, you may want to submit your site to aggregators. These are services that take RSS content from a variety of sites, collect it and re-organize it into customized formats.
RSS and the Internet Marketer
The simplicity of RSS files make them a good way to publish all types of information. Not only is RSS being used as an ad medium by companies ranging from Google to Pheedo, it's now an official marketing tool. The marketing and profit potential of RSS is, simply put, quite amazing. It's not just good for blogs or news feeds because it’s certainly much more than just another way of getting content to readers.
While blogs vaulted RSS into the limelight, it is unlikely to be the force that sustains RSS as a communication medium. Truth be told, most blogs are still not being optimized for marketing effectiveness. While some blogs show the potential of being absolute marketing machines, most tend to fail to fully capitalize on that fact by not being really ‘marketing-wise’. However, with more companies joining in the blogging craze and with the advent of micro blogging with Twitter and company, this does look set to change. However, at the moment, the biggest opportunities for RSS are not in the blogosphere but as a corporate communication channel.
As traditional marketers attempt to rein in content delivery by measuring e-mail open rates, click-throughs and conversions, Internet users are fighting to gain control over the content they receive. Savvy marketers and business owners are using RSS as a way to improve corporate communication and increase their external exposure and brand appeal.
Contrary to general opinion, RSS meets the needs of even the most demanding direct marketer, actually providing most of what e-mail marketing does, except for the strong push factor. It is a fact that most direct marketing reasons against RSS are in fact the result of inadequate understanding of RSS by most marketers.
However, this does not seem to be hampering RSS technology’s adoption in the marketing arena, as it is definitely popping up everywhere. Here are just some of its uses in the dynamic marketing field:
Coupon feeds and Affiliate Marketing
In the marketing world, RSS is already being used intensively for coupon feeds. What’s more, many marketers have already asked – ‘Why stop at aggregator-to-consumer direct coupon feeds when you can bring affiliates into the network?’ Coupons, and many other types of feeds, can be incorporated directly into Web sites and blogs with affiliate tags. Affiliate programs are also using the technology to keep in touch with their affiliate networks, providing news and program updates. Program updates promote updated affiliate sites, resulting in higher search engine rankings.
In addition, many companies are also using RSS technology to feed their press releases too. Examples of such companies include IBM, Microsoft, Apple and Google. This trend is now fast catching on, even among smaller companies.
On the IR front, podcasts are now available on BusinessWire, a major wire service. It is already very popular with automotive and entertainment companies (for instance, Lexus and Warner Brothers). This trend is bound to carry on for some time to come, as all kinds of marketers are experimenting or beginning to experiment with the podcast channel.
Product Deals and Feeds
RSS technology is definitely spurring the ‘one-click-feeds-you-all-the-deals’ theory. Most software companies for example are making full use of this to notify customers of updates and upgrades. That RSS is becoming more and more mainstream is extremely obvious especially now when all kinds of standalone apps have been developed to capture and display feeds in the most eye-catching way possible.
Job listings are now also available as feeds, almost eliminating the need to visit the job sites or subscribe to mailings from HotJobs, Monster, and other job boards. This represents a tremendous degree of lost branding opportunity and will only contribute to the demise of those who don't get with the program.
Marketers are also increasingly using RSS to keep their brands on top of consumers’ minds as well as to establish their thought leadership.
Isn’t it time to start using RSS?
The list of RSS uses for the savvy marketer will just carry on getting longer and longer. RSS is a technology that has the potential of overcoming many of the Internet marketing challenges we are facing today. In addition to its many marketing uses listed above, it can also effectively help organizations achieve top position search engine rankings. No surprises then why it is fast becoming a preferred tool to get 100% of any marketer’s content delivered to their subscribers. However, while RSS does provide a number of benefits when used for each individual marketing function, best results are achieved when it is fully integrated in your company’s Internet marketing strategy. With RSS, marketers and their organizations can only win big-time.
By Shanti Anne Morais