What Is an RSS Feed? Definition, Working, and Applications


An RSS feed is defined as an online file that stores and displays data from user-chosen websites in reverse chronological order. Every time new content is uploaded on any of the added websites, its summary, author, publication date, link, and other information is displayed in the RSS feed.

What Is an RSS Feed?

An RSS feed is an online file that stores and displays data from user-chosen websites in reverse chronological order. Every time new content is uploaded on any of the added websites, its summary, author, publication date, link, and other information is displayed in the RSS feed.

RSS is usually said to stand for either RDF site summary, rich site summary, or really simple syndication. Online algorithms leverage it for content curation and delivering results personalized according to audience interests. Digital platforms such as blogs and websites use RSS feeds to align their content with audience interests better.

This web feed solution enables users to access content updates from multiple sources automatically and in a centralized manner. Understanding how RSS works allows content creators from across genres to navigate digital publishing more confidently.

RSS feeds work using simple text files. This solution extracts data from XML, simplifies and streamlines it, and then uploads it on an RSS reader for conversion into digital updates. This process converts simple data (such as site name, title, and description) into a consistent source of new content. Users thereby stay informed about the latest online developments.

Rise of RSS standard

The first version of RSS was created in March 1999, with Netscape releasing the RDF Site Summary solution. Web publishers used this early version of RSS to curate content from their websites and displayed it on the first RSS portals, such as my.netscape.com. Later, Netscape engineers streamlined the technology and gave it a new name: Rich Site Summary. Once AOL took over and restructured Netscape, the organization stopped contributing to RSS development.

The technology was renamed again in 2002 (this time, to ‘Really Simple Syndication’), when a new version of RSS was released. With the subsequent 2004 release came the RSS icon for the Mozilla Firefox internet browser, making RSS feeds more accessible to web surfers.

All this may have happened long ago; however, RSS has continued attempting to keep up with the constant digital revolution. Today, its digital capabilities have advanced to make RSS files more complex. For instance, modern RSS feeds can handle pictures, videos, and other non-text content, while the earlier versions could only handle text-based content.

Information transfer is simplified, better organized, loads faster, and is more compatible with different RSS readers. However, at its core, an RSS feed is still known for stripping down content to boost loading times and increase accessibility. Users can view the newest content from the sources of their choice using RSS readers, which are automatically updated when connected to the internet. Online feeds with curated updates from regularly visited websites are the key feature of RSS.

Purpose of RSS feeds

RSS technology is primarily useful for those looking to stay up-to-date with new online content. Websites rely on RSS feeds to give users personalized viewing and search experiences. While social media platforms have taken over the role of RSS to a certain extent, its simplicity and flexibility are not easily replicated by other online content aggregation platforms.

RSS lets users compartmentalize and categorize new content and access updates without worrying about losing track of important information. Some users prefer RSS as a simpler and more helpful alternative to participating on social media platforms. RSS feeds update even when the user is not online, keeping the latest articles, news, podcasts, posts, and other content ready to consume. Major blogs and websites offer RSS compatibility, while smartphone apps can serve as feed readers and help users access their favorite content on the go.

Are RSS feeds going obsolete?

Not anytime soon! While there’s no denying that RSS feeds are not as popular as before, they are still a core part of digital communications for specific audiences today. Web feeds powered by RSS remain helpful for reading, managing, and navigating online content.

RSS feeds can even be classified as ‘essential’ for certain types of content. For instance, podcast directories such as Spotify and Apple Podcasts support RSS feed integration for their content to enable regular listeners to receive timely updates. Maximizing the discoverability and reach of online content are vital functions of RSS feeds.

Casual users and professionals use RSS feeds to avoid missing out on the latest online updates. Its compatibility with various types of publications and platforms makes it highly accessible. All these signs indicate that RSS is not leaving the content syndication landscape anytime soon.

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How Does an RSS Feed Work?

The primary purpose of an RSS feed is to display content that is important to the user. The first step is for the user to subscribe to. RSS on a website supporting the feature, such as a blog or news website.

The subscription automatically lets the website transmit updates to the user’s RSS reader. Each update summarizes new content, such as a business article or a freshly published blog post. This process enables the RSS reader to share the content within the user’s feed in real-time.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at how an RSS feed works:

1. Data transmission from the website to feed

RSS-powered websites maintain their own RSS file, which creates a list of the latest notifications and updates. Users can either visit this third-party feed to manually view the newest content or subscribe to it to receive the latest notifications automatically. Once subscribed, fresh updates are continuously transmitted to the user’s feed reader.

2. Data format

Once the updates are transmitted from the website to the feed, they can be accessed using a feed reader. The reader displays basic data about the latest content, posted in reverse chronological order ( most recent updates are placed at the top so that the user can view them easily).

In the user’s RSS feed, each content piece is assigned information, such as its title, description, date of publishing, name of the author, and link to the original platform. Users can peruse their feed to spot content that interests them based on this data quickly. Once the user sees something they want to know more about, they can tap on it to view the full content.

3. Role of aggregators

RSS aggregators play a vital role in making the convenience offered by RSS feeds possible. This component is responsible for automatically checking websites for new content. Once new content is detected, the RSS aggregator immediately retrieves that content from the website’s RSS feed and transmits it to the user’s own feed reader. Thanks to aggregators, users do not have to check each website separately to view the latest content.

The RSS aggregator also tracks the content that the user has opened, thus keeping a record of viewed and unviewed content. That way, users can access a list of unconsumed content for each website they follow, which they can view later.

4. Implementation

Users can follow the following steps to set up their RSS feed:

Step 1: Choose a feed reader

RSS feed readers provide an interface for users to access their favorite syndicated content in real-time. Information sourced from numerous user-selected (and similar) feeds is displayed to the user based on their preferences and interests. RSS readers also transmit push notifications to users when new content is retrieved.

A user must install a feed reader on any compatible, internet-enabled device before setting up an RSS feed. Numerous free options are available. Feed readers can be either dedicated mobile applications or web-based platforms, and almost every user endpoint today can support RSS readers. Readers differ in type, interface, and style, and users can choose one that best suits their preferences and needs.

Here are a few of the best RSS feed readers:

  • Flipboard: This RSS feed reader is on the fancier side when compared to other, more basic options. It stands apart due to its rich design and seamless mobile compatibility. Flipboard aggregates results with the help of intuitive categories. Users are given updates on various content types, such as blog posts, business posts, and articles by online magazines. This feature-rich platform enables an enjoyable user experience.
  • Feedly: This reader is known for its professional updates and entertainment content. It is simple in its design and easy to navigate. Users can choose from several categories, and Feedly retrieves and displays data from various RSS feeds according to the user’s choices. On the news front, this platform populates a comprehensive newsfeed with the latest articles, giving preferences to topics with which the user engages more. 

Users can organize their RSS feeds based on their preferences, write notes on the content consumed, share updates with others, and even leverage an AI-powered research assistant for reading, analyzing, and streamlining content.

  • The Old Reader: As its name implies, this RSS reader is known for its minimal and straightforward interface. It is highly usable, focuses on functioning without excess features, and offers the simple categorization and organization of content feeds. It is widely compatible with smartphones, desktops, and tablets. While The Old Reader does offer limited social features, its USP is sticking to the basics.
  • Feedreader: This effective web-based RSS reader operates wholly online and features a minimalistic design. It is simple to use and focuses on intelligent content curation. Several clear categories allow Feedreader to classify content effectively. This platform is also known for its flexibility, with users accessing numerous editing alternatives to change their display or feed per their preferences. Its ‘view mode’ feature allows users to group data based on date, tag, or source.

Step 2: Subscribe to websites

Once an RSS reader is chosen, it’s time to get the most out of the RSS feed by selecting the content that matters. Many feed readers ask users to create an account, which helps them personalize their preferences across devices. Once a feed reader account is created, users can select or search for their preferred websites, podcasts, blogs, and other content platforms.

On modern feed readers, subscribing is usually as simple as tapping a button. However, some slightly older content platforms may require you to find and tap on the orange RSS icon and execute a few more complicated steps. By tapping on the ‘RSS plus’ icon on the feed, you will be prompted to input the website URL from which you wish to receive updates.

If these methods do not work, you can try adding ‘/feed/’ to the end of the website URL you want to add to your RSS feed. Another way is to use an RSS feed generator for manually creating an RSS feed for a specific page, which can then be followed using an RSS reader. The final option is to use the ‘Find’ function in the HTML source code of the webpage and search for the keyword ‘RSS’. If a feed URL is available, it will be highlighted and contained within quotes after ‘href=’.

Step 3: Organize your feed

Most RSS readers allow users to customize their feed to make it cleaner and simpler to understand. This is especially helpful for users who view updates often. Once you finalize your RSS subscriptions, you can create categories or folders to organize the updates and simplify navigation.

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Uses of RSS Feeds

RSS feeds are helpful for staying up to date on your favorite blogs; however, that’s not all they’re built to do! RSS feeds are also used for aggregating information and even for automating workflows.

1. Syndication and tracking of fresh content

Let’s get the most apparent use of RSS out of the way first. Content creators, research professionals, and employees from many other verticals need to stay up to date on the happenings of their respective domains. Blogs are a valuable way of doing so. For instance, users working in the publishing domain can customize their RSS feeds for inspiration on topics to write on and for research that can be cited for specialized articles.

RSS readers can also track the number of fresh content pieces that each website being followed has published recently. This informs users of the pending content for their review and ensures no ‘fresh’ content is missed. If a user is confident that none of the remaining unread content requires their perusal, they can ‘mark as read’ the remaining unread content. This removes it from the ‘pending’ list and will not be included in the fresh content list.

All this applies to more than just blogs. Users can also rely on RSS feeds to track the latest videos and podcasts. RSS readers can parse links from the most shared content pages, such as a listing of podcast episodes, a YouTube channel, or a blog’s homepage.

2. Curated email newsletters

A cluttered inbox is usually detrimental to productivity, and email newsletters are one of the biggest culprits. However, some newsletters are genuinely helpful for professionals in specific domains. RSS feeds can address this problem by changing how email newsletters are consumed.

Third-party ’email newsletter converters’ provide an email address that users can add to the newsletter publisher’s mailing list. This email is separate from the user’s primary email address. Once the ‘converter’ email address receives a newsletter, it converts it into an XML feed. This feed can be added to an RSS reader, allowing users to shift the latest updates away from their inbox and into their RSS feed.

3. Greater control over social media

A common complaint people have against social media platforms is being shown content that a sophisticated algorithm ‘thinks’ they want to see. RSS readers can take out the algorithm from the middle and show users content only from the handles they want to hear from. Third-party ‘social media to RSS converters’ play a role here.

The link to the social media page or profile is shared with these converters, which then use it to create an RSS feed that one can subscribe to using an RSS reader. For instance, a user looking to follow the latest Twitter updates from Spiceworks News & Insights will use a third-party ‘Twitter to RSS’ service to generate an RSS feed and URL.

One can add this converted feed to an RSS reader to display updates from the Spiceworks News Twitter handle alongside other content on the RSS feed of the user. Such social media to RSS converters also work for content from other leading social media platforms such as Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and Reddit.

4. Tracking job openings

Online job portals have streamlined the hiring process for recruiters and applicants. However, not all companies use standard job portals. For instance, some employers share available jobs on popular websites such as LinkedIn, while others share openings only on their company portals.

This presents a challenge to applicants looking for new jobs, and they often have to browse several websites to search for relevant job openings. RSS simplifies this process. Some job portals offer ready-to-subscribe RSS feeds for every job category, while others let users subscribe to email job alerts. The former can simply be added to a user’s RSS feed, while the latter can be curated using the ’email newsletter converter’ method described above.

Third-party ‘RSS feed generators’ that work for social media profiles can also work for the career pages of company websites. All the user needs to do is share the URL of the page with the generator and add the resulting RSS link to their reader. Specific RSS solutions also support the creation of a ‘superfeed’, or a feed that combines many feeds, to source job postings from several different feeds and display them in one place.

Once a user sees a relevant job opening, they can visit the original platform by clicking on the link in their RSS feed and apply for it.

5. Automate newsletters and posts

We’ve covered how end users can use RSS to improve their experience with newsletters and social media. Now, we’ll see how content creators can leverage RSS to make emails and posts more accessible.

Publishers can use the RSS feed of their podcast, blog, social media profile, video channel, or other platforms to automate the creation of their email newsletters. For instance, an email newsletter containing a list of the latest content from a specific video streamer can be created using an RSS feed. The feed will retrieve titles, links, and summaries and add them to the email newsletter tool, removing the need for manual data entry.

The user must select a curated list, add a subject line, and hit ‘send’. Certain email newsletter apps, such as the popular Mailchimp, offer RSS-to-email integration that supports this method without needing third-party modifications.

The same method (with specific apparent differences) applies to social media posting. Third-party tools allow RSS integration with social media profiles, automating the publishing of posts.

6. Monitor keyword mentions and branding

Finally, RSS can be a no-cost alternative to subscription-based keyword monitoring tools. Whether it’s a person’s name, a brand, or any other keyword, an alert can be created using Google Alerts and the email be set to deliver to an RSS feed.

This method can be further extended to become a branding tool tracking the user’s brand or competitors’ activities. For instance, one can create a single RSS feed to receive end-to-end updates from a company’s blog, search engine alerts, emailers, social media posts, and everything else they’re doing online.

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Ever-evolving social media algorithms may have several advantages, but they are also a reason for their platforms falling out of favor with some audiences. RSS feeds are a no-frills, no-cost alternative for consuming the latest content from specific creators and brands. This may be its most alluring use case, but it’s certainly not the only application of RSS feeds. This handy online solution may not be as popular as it used to be, but it’s not going anywhere anytime soon!

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