An explanation of RSS / feeds / online newsletters
Note: This post has been slightly modified / corrected from the original thanks to a few careful and knowledgeable readers.
I often get email requests asking to subscribe to my “feed” and the other day someone asked about distributing a podcast via RSS. This represents a somewhat discombobulated understanding of RSS and feeds, so I thought I’d try to explain these terms / concepts. (I should note that I really don’t know all that much about RSS — just enough to maintain my blog — but on the upside, “just enough” is probably good enough for many.)
What is RSS?
RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication (and something else I can’t remember, but that doesn’t much matter). Think of it as electronic subscription service — instead of getting your newspaper delivered to your front door, RSS allows you to get your newspaper stories delivered to your RSS reader.
What is an RSS reader?
A reader is a website that allows you to read the stories (or posts) for websites and blogs to which you choose to subscribe. Readers include Bloglines, Google Reader, NewsGator and others.
What is a feed?
A feed allows an online publication or blog to distribute their stories to readers via RSS.
How does this all differ from an online newsletter?
An online newsletter is simply a message that is emailed to a distribution list. There is no feed involved. (In the case of The Book Publicity Blog, I maintain an email distribution list for people who prefer not to check the blog online / in an RSS reader — after I post online, I simply copy and paste the information into an email message and send it out.) So when you ask if you can subscribe to The Book Publicity Blog, you’re asking if you can subscribe to the email newsletter, not to the blog’s feed (since you woud subscribe to the feed yourself). Apparently, I could also have Feedburner send out my blog posts via email automatically … although that would mean I wouldn’t have time to correct posts after publishing them!
Why set up an RSS reader?
A reader is an efficient way to consolidate all your websites and blogs. You can quickly scroll through all headlines and click through only to those stories in which you are interested — instead of visiting many websites a day, you can simply look in your reader and view the content on all of them.
Exactly how efficient is a reader? I subscribe to almost 300 websites and blogs and I whip through all these headlines every day or every couple days when I’m busy. Before I had an RSS reader, well, let’s just say I sure wasn’t following almost 300 websites daily. Sarah Palin obviously doesn’t have an RSS reader. (Granted, following all these sites is far more important for a publicist making their living working with the media than for someone who following the news for fun.)
Why is it important for a blog to have a feed?
You know the story of the tree that falls in the woods? (If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a noise?) A blog without a feed is like the tree falling with no one around — it doesn’t make a “noise.” Unless someone is so beholden to you that they will check your website every single day, you can assume that they won’t check your site. In other words, there’s no way to build a regular audience for your blog without a feed (since most of us have a limited number of blood relatives and best friends).
I initially thought feeds had to be established by the site / blogger using a tool like Feedburner, but as you can see from the Comments, feeds are usually built in to standard blogging platforms like Blogger, Typepad, WordPress. (I have occasionally encountered blogs without feeds, though, so if you are blogging, it’s worthwhile testing out your feed.)
If you do use Feedburner, there are other cool things you can do (again, see Comments).
I think that covers the basics …