RSS is a method of distributing links to content in your web site that you'd like others to use. In other words, it's a mechanism to "syndicate" your content.
To understand syndication, consider the "real world" situation where artist Scott Adams draws a daily Dilbert cartoon. The cartoon is made available to any newspaper that cares to run it, in exchange for a fee -- and 2,000 papers in 65 countries do so.
Unlike Scott Adams, syndication of web content via RSS is unlikely to make you rich. However, it can be an easy way to draw attention to your material, bringing you some traffic and perhaps a little net fame, depending on how good your information is.
What Is RSS?
How does RSS syndication work? Say you publish a new web page about a particular topic. You want others interested in that topic to know about it. By listing the page as an "item" in your RSS file, you can have the page appear in front of those who read information using RSS readers or "news aggregators" (explained more in my sidebar article, RSS: Your Gateway To News & Blog Content). RSS also allows people to easily add links to your content within their own web pages. Bloggers are a huge core audience that especially does this.
What does RSS stand for? There's a can of worms. RSS as introduced by Netscape in 1999 then later abandoned in 2001 stood for "Rich Site Summary." Another version of RSS pioneered by UserLand Software stands for "Really Simple Syndication." In yet another version, RSS stands for "RDF Site Summary."
History buffs might be interested that there's been some rivalry over who invented RSS. This is why we have both different names and indeed different "flavors" or versions of RSS. Mark Pilgrim's written an excellent article, What Is RSS, that charts the different versions with recommendations on which to use. I'll also revisit the version choice you'll need to make. But first, let's look more closely at some basics of what goes into any RSS file.
How Easy Is RSS?
I've been exploring RSS because it was time that Search Engine Watch offered its own stories in this manner. I've read several tutorials about making a feed, and they generally suggest that it is easy. They often offer code that you can "cut-and-paste" and link over to specifications that I actually don't find that clear.
For example, the RSS 2.0 specification has an "cloud" element that's optional but which a lay person might still wonder if they should use it. Meanwhile, heaven help the person who stumbles into the RSS 1.0 specification and its complicated RDF syntax.
Sure, making an RSS file IS easy for many. If you understand HTML, you'll probably understand enough to do a cut-and-paste from someone else's RSS file to make your own file. Don't know HTML? Start a blog, because several blogging tools automatically generates RSS files.
As for those non-technical people using WYSIWYG page building tools or personal home page building systems, have faith. Even you can build an RSS file from scratch, as long as you dispense with some of the extra features you probably don't need. We'll go through how to do this below.
The RSS File
At the heart of an RSS file are "items." No matter what version of RSS you settle on, your file will have to include at least one item. Items are generally web pages that you'd like others to link to. For example, let's say you just created a web page reviewing a new cell phone that's being released. Information about that page would form an item.
To enter your item into the RSS file, you'll need three bits of information:
The title and description of your item need not match exactly the HTML title tag of the web page that the item refers to, nor the meta description tag, assuming you use these (don't know what they are? See my How To Use HTML Tags article). You can write any title and description that you think will describe the page. However, using your page's title and meta description tag certainly makes it easy to copy and paste to build your RSS feed.