Saturday, 24 May 2008

What is an RSS feed and how can I use it?

Many of our partners are interested in RSS feeds and have questions about what they are and how they can use them. In this post we'll try and give you some background and explain how you can make use of RSS feeds.

Really Simple Syndication?

Wikipedia defines Really Simple Syndication or RSS as 'a family of Web feed formats used to publish frequently updated content such as blog entries, news headlines, and podcasts in a standardized format'. You may have come across this icon: It is now commonly used to show when an RSS feed is available. You may also have heard of 'subscribing' to an RSS feed. RSS feeds offer a way for websites to make their content available beyond people visiting it using a browser like Internet Explorer or Firefox. Using an RSS feed a website can enable 'subscriptions' to it's content via email, a news reader or even another website.

So in short RSS is an easy way to:

1. Keep track of new information on many websites via email or a newsreader
2. Automatically display information from one website on another

Have a look at the following video from Common Craft for a simple explanation of how RSS helps you do the former.

How can I use RSS to keep track of different websites?

As the video shows, RSS makes it easy to see what is new on a number of different websites. Instead of having to go to each site in turn you can view a list of new information that has recently been added. To make use of RSS feeds you first need to choose how you want to view them. There are many different options, so we will focus here on two of the simplest.

1. Using Google Reader

For those of you already using gmail or that have some kind of Google account, this is very easy. Simply go to to get started. As in the video above, you can easily add any number of feeds to Google Reader. They all appear in the bar on the left and you can quickly sift through them.

2. Using Live Bookmarks

If you regularly use the same computer and your lucky enough to have a recent version of Firefox or Internet explorer as your browser, then you could also use something called Live Bookmarks. This is possibly even easier than using Google Reader, as you can do it all from within your browser. Any feeds that you subscribe to appear in your bookmarks (or favourites) bar, exactly as they do when you bookmark a website. Except in this case, if you click on the bookmark they open up to show you a list of new things added to that site. See below for an example.
How can I use RSS to add information to my website?

So RSS can help save time and also money for those with limited access to the Internet. It makes it easy to quickly check and see what is new. However, for those that have their own websites, it also offers a great way to automatically add interesting new content to your site.

As you can see on this blog, we have a list of news stories from AIDSPortal. We've done this using an RSS feed. It's a little more complicated than using Live Bookmarks or Google Reader, but luckily several websites are around that make it easy for us. Widgetbox is one example.

When you arrive at the site it gives you the option to create a 'widget' from an RSS feed.
Having entered the RSS feed that you want to display on your website, you are presented with a variety of options to choose how you want the feed to display. The end result is some short code (javascript or flash) that you can cut and paste into the html on your website. You can see the widget we created here, which looks like this:

Click on the link at the bottom of the widget if you would like the code to add this to your website.

How can I make my own RSS feed?

So, you know how to subscribe to feeds and maybe you've even added some feeds to your website. However, what if your own site or the site you want to keep track of doesn't have it's own feed?

There are several ways to make an RSS feed available for a website, most of which require some technical know-how and ability to make changes to the website itself. However, there are now some very easy ways to create an RSS feed with no technical knowledge. Dapper (or data mapper) is one option that we have found works very well. Dapper's aim is 'to make it easy and possible for anyone to extract and reuse content from any website'.

The 'Dapp Factory' really is very easy to use. You can watch a video here that explains how to do it. We've used Dapper to create a number of different feeds. This one takes information from the AIDSPortal events page and makes it available as an RSS feed that shows a list of HIV related events from around the world.

We hope these ideas and techniques are useful to people. If you have experiences of using WidgetBox, Dapper or other applications then do let us know by leaving a comment below.


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