What's an RSS Feed?

First posted Jan 12, 2008
Last update Mar 15, 2015

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. A syndication is a system for distributing information to a large number of people easily such as a newspaper syndication. An RSS Feed is an easy way for you to keep up with new items being posted on web sites that have RSS Feeds available, without having to visit the site first.

Once a day, or whenever you tell it to, your RSS reader will check the websites you have subscribed to for updates. If you check your RSS favorites you will be able to see if there have been any updates since the last time you looked.

Subscribe to Cowboy Frank's Feed You can subscribe to a Feed only if you have a program that can read an RSS file. These are called feed readers or aggregators. To subscribe to a feed, just click on the RSS icon. If you have an RSS reader, then you will see a page where you can either Subscribe to this Feed or copy the feed address into your stand alone reader. If you don't have a compatible RSS reader, then you will see a page full of gobbledegook. In that case, you need to get a reader.

Internet Explorer 7, Outlook 2007 and newer versions of FireFox have built-in Feed readers. Outlook Express version 6 does not have a Feed reader, but there are a number of Feed readers and feed reading plug-ins available on the Internet. Search Google for Outlook Express Feed reader and you should find several. For a free stand alone reader try this one from FeedReader.com

To see your subscribed feeds in Internet Explorer 7, just click the gold star in the upper left and your favorites will open. Look at the top bar above your favorites. Notice the item that says Feeds. Click that and you will see any feeds you are subscribed to. If there are any new updates you haven't seen yet, the feed names will be shown in bold text. Hover your mouse over a subscription and you should see a popup indicating the number of new items available. Internet Explorer comes with Microsoft Office and Microsoft Home Feeds already subscribed. You can delete any Feed, or group of Feeds you don't want by right clicking on the feed and choosing delete.

In Outlook 2007, the Feeds folder can be found as a listed item under your Personal Folders group. Outlook 2007 and Internet Explorer share Feed links so any you add to Explorer will show up in Outlook and vice versa. Outlook checks for new feeds each time it retrieves e-mail.

How to make an RSS feed available on your website

The basic RSS feed is fairly simple, but getting it started can be a bit daunting if you have never worked with html before.

First you need to decide on a file name for your feed. I used CowboyFrank.rss, so we will use that as our example, but you can use any name you like as long as the extension is .rss.

The file itself is a an ASCII text file with an rss extension. You can use Windows Notepad to create the file if you don't have an html editor that writes raw code. Do not use Microsoft Word or Wordpad, they won't work. In this tutorial I will attempt to give you details that will help your feed be compatible with the widest array of readers. However, take note of the last update on this page as rss standards tends to change from time to time.

Take note that all the tag coding in an rss file must be in lower case, except where you see a capital letter in mine.

The first 2 lines define which versions you are writing your feed under and should look like the following

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1" ?>
<rss version="2.0 xmlns:atom="http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom">

The next section begins the channel which is basically your feed.

The channel begins with
  • The title of your site
  • A link to your main site index page which must be the FULL URL to your page
  • An atom link which is the full URL to your feed file
  • A description of your site
  • And the language your site is written in

There are numerous other options, but I will skip them for now as they are not required

<title>Cowboy Frank</title>
<atom:link href="http://CowboyFrank.net/CowboyFrank.rss" rel="self" type="application/rss+xml" />
Your online Cowboy resource. Webcam reviews, Horse breeds, Cowboy galleries, Cowboy music

If you want an image to be available on the visitor's feed index you can define that in the next section. This is optional and is not required. If you look at my feed you may see a tan cowboy hat somewhere on your feed index. Whether your image even shows at all is dependant on the specific feed reader the visitor is using. It is recommended that you use a small graphic no larger than about 100x100 pixels

The image begins with

  • A full URL link to your main site index page (must match the URL from above)
  • Your site title (must match the title above)
  • The full URL to the graphic you want to make available
  • Height of the graphic in pixels
  • Width of the graphic in pixels

<title>Cowboy Frank</title>

Now for the individual items. These are easy, but the format must be precise. If you do something wrong the feed may not work. Never fear, there is help available for checking your feed. I'll get to that later.

Each item consists of 5 parts.

  • The tittle of your item
  • A full URL link to the page being talked about
  • The description that explains what the item is about
    • This can be a simple headline style or an extended description
  • The published date of the feed/web page you are notifying people of
    • This is very important and must follow the example code below or the feed won't validate
      1. A three letter day of the week with the first letter capitalized followed by a comma
      2. A two digit date of the month, lead with a zero if the day is only one digit (ie, 03)
      3. A three letter abbreviation of the month, first letter capitalized
      4. A four character year
      5. A six character military time (24 hour clock) separated by colons, lead single characters with a zero
      6. Your time zone in all capital letters
    • Make sure your time and date match the location you are specifying in your time zone.
  • The full URL to the page you are advertising with your feed
  • For more items just copy this block and modify the insides to match your next item
  • You can only have one item within your feed file pointing to any given web page. If you update a page and want to put another item to the same page, remove the previous item from the list
  • Place the newest items at the top of your feed list
  • To make the system work more efficiently, you should limit the number of items in a single feed file, I try to keep mine at less than 20

<title>What's an RSS Feed?</title>
An explanation of what an RSS Feed can do to help you keep up with changing websites.
<pubDate>Sat, 12 Jan 2008 10:52:00 EST</pubDate>

Now for the more complicated parts required to get your feed going. You only need to do these items once to get things working.

On you main site index page you need to modify the head some. If you have never worked with HTML before you need to get a little instruction first. HTML is not as hard as it looks, you just have to understand a few of the codes to figure it all out. This part allows Microsoft Internet Explorer to find your RSS file and then it will show an active RSS feed in the tool bar.

Modify the begining of your html head tag to look like this.

<head runat="server">

Begining with the next line in your head add the following set of lines modifying the title to match your feed and href to point to your rss file.

<link rel="alternate""
title="CowboyFrank RSS Feed"
href="http://cowboyfrank.net/CowboyFrank.rss" />

The last thing you may need to do is to add a mime type to your server. Huh? What? Web servers have to be told what kinds of files to handle in what ways. Unless we tell the server that an .rss file is to be sent to the web browser with instructions to run a specific program on the other end, the server doesn't know how to serve the file and may send it out as a text file.

If your web site is hosted on an Apache server then you can use a .htaccess file (pronounced dot h t access) to include the proper instructions. Sorry, I don't know how to do this with other types of servers. Check with your hosting service if you don't know.

What the heck is an .htaccess file you ask? It's a fairly simple file with the strange name of .htaccess. One problem is you can't create one under Windows because you have to give the file a name not just an extension. I use my web editor program (HomeSite) to create my files. Once created you can edit the file in Notepad if you need to modify it. Once created you place the file in the root directory of your website.

To make an rss feed work you need to have the following line in your .htaccess file. One final point, it is possible you may not be allowed to use a .htaccess file on your site or your hosting company may have Apache set so it won't add any mime types to your server so this may not work. If this is the case the only option you have is to find another hosting company

AddType application/rss+xml .rss

Make sure if you have other types added that they all fall in alphabetical order in line otherwise they will not work.

Upload everything to your site and then run an RSS Validation service. I like this one by the W3C. Enter the full URL to your rss file, not to the page being advertised.

If you have problems with your feed, the validator should give you a list of problems and may hint at a suggested solutions.

That's it. Happy Feeding. Now I need feeding, time for dinner.