What is the RSS, XML, RDF, and Atom business?

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After a long day at work, you’re not in the mood to cook or go out. Time to rely on your reliable pizza delivery boy. After taking the order, he promptly delivered the pizza, piping hot, within 30 minutes as promised. If only it were that easy for a fussy family where no one agrees to have dinner at the same restaurant. One wants Mexico, another wants China, and one wants burgers and Mexico.

Instead of running to three different places, you call one delivery service that will go to all those places and bring it to you. What could be easier than not having to cook or pick up meals?

RSS, XML, RDF, and Atom are the food delivery men of the Internet. The content they offer is mixed and cooked elsewhere on the Internet, and just like meals aren’t cooked at your doorstep, acronym researchers bring the content to you through software or online applications. Instead of trying to remember all your favorite places to get the latest news, it will all appear once you order.

Click any orange or blue RSS, XML or RDF button and you will see unreadable text. Some of it is readable, but reading in between is slow and difficult. In this case, you get the raw ingredients of what is called a feed. To make it easy to read, download a feed reader that can explain (aggregate) the ingredients or sign up for an online service that can do the same.

When the software or application is ready, click the orange or blue button (or “Syndicate this page” or anything similar) and copy the generated URL from the address box. Paste it into the app to cook the ingredients delivered to you for your enjoyment.

Aggregation isn’t a new concept on the Internet, but it’s growing in popularity as more and more websites and newsletters are churning content, turning it into syndicated files, which are then fed into aggregators. Think of it as content you can take anywhere.

Grabbing a feed and feeding it to an aggregator is another way to bookmark (or create a favorite) a site because you want to come back to it next time. But how often do you come back to the site via your bookmarks/favorites?

Instead of searching for information from one site to another, I have it all in front of me through an aggregator. Feeds are organized into folders by topic for easy finding. If I’m writing about the latest virus or worm, then I open the safe folder that contains the security-related feeds and scan them.

Scanning content through an aggregator is easier than on a website because it’s in a folder with the title and short summary. On a website, you can only benefit from the news of this website and nowhere else. This folder contains news from more than a dozen sources, including blogs, news sites, and newsletters.

Any content can be syndicated. This is a backend process issue, depending on the application used to manage the content. If the site does not have such a resource, the software input can be used to create a file containing a feed for publishing on the site.

Most aggregators have an export feature so the feed can be shared with others interested in the same topic. If you’re interested in my security feeds, in most cases I can export them into an OPML file that you can import into your aggregator.
Spam filters prevent readers from receiving the newsletter, or they would get lost in the spam pool. Providing a feed for a newsletter is a compromise.

Readers get content, only it doesn’t come from mailboxes, it comes from aggregators. This is a way to bypass spam. Like everything else, it has its pros and cons:
advantage:

  • Filters cannot prevent a newsletter from reaching its destination.
  • Recipients will get it – if the server goes down, it will be downloaded next time and the email may be lost.
  • Feeds can be syndicated, giving your content more exposure.

shortcoming:

  • Rely on readers to open the aggregator like an email client, but some aggregators have an email client built in, like NewsGator, and there are online aggregators, like Bloglines, which can be your home page.
  • The indicators won’t be as complete, but still exist through the link.
  • Not as pretty as an HTML-based newsletter.

What do you lose if feeds are created automatically? You give your readers another way to get your content, just like you can get your pizza in different ways: to a restaurant, for delivery, or to make it at home. More apps are adding federation capabilities, making the process effortless. Some people say they won’t read anything unless it has a synopsis.

Aggregation works better than bookmarks. With bookmarks, you click on a site that might have security information, get there only to find it doesn’t. So go back to the bookmark to click on another site. Later, rinse, repeat. With an aggregator, there is no need to hop from one site to another. Scan the titles there until you find what you need.

There was a time when we didn’t have the option to have pizza delivered to our door. When we’re too tired, we know we can count on the delivery guy. In terms of content, expect it to show up at your door more often than a pizzeria, and it’s cheaper, with the cost coming from the software alone, although there are many free options available.

Syndication is here to stay and should be an addition to a company’s communications toolbox, not a replacement. Witness it by watching RSS, XML, RDF and Atom out there.

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