Note

This page is about using RSS and Atom, from a non-technical standpoint.
If you are interested in creating RSS feeds, see this RSS Workshop, or Atom for Publishers for Atom.
If you are interested in creating an RSS or Atom reader, see the Aggregators Yahoo! group.
See also the note about Atom below.

On this Page:

What is RSS?

RSS can actually be explained in three words, which you’ll find bolded in the second paragraph…

Before you go any further, realize this: RSS is really simple. Just because it is an acronym doesn’t mean that it’s complicated. Don’t get scared away, there’s really nothing to it. I said it was an acronym, but depending on who you ask and what version of RSS you are speaking about, it may stand for Really Simple Syndication, Rich Site Summary, RDF Site Summary, or a variation on one of those. None of that matters to you anyhow. Another thing that you don’t need to care about is the versions. There are 0.90 and 0.91 (created by Netscape), 1.0 (by RSS-DEV), and 0.9x and 2.0 (by UserLand Software) versions, but almost all applications that handle RSS feeds can read all the different versions. There’s also a similar format called Atom, explained below.

RSS is a text-based format, a type of XML. You should know that only because often RSS files are often labeled as XML. RSS version 1.0 is also RDF (whatever), which, again, is important only because an RSS file may be labeled as RDF. RSS files (which are also called RSS feeds or channels) simply contain a list of items. Usually, each item contains a title, summary, and a link to a URL (e.g. a web page). Other information, such as the date, creator’s name, etc., may also be available. The most common use for RSS files is for news and other reverse-chronologically ordered websites like blogs. For example, this particular page on Fagan Finder has a changes log, which is also available in RSS format. An item’s description may contain all of a news article, blog post, etc., or just an extract or summary. The item’s link will usually point to the full content (although it may also point to what the content itself links to).

When a website has an RSS feed, it is said to be “syndicated.” There are various other syndication formats besides RSS (such as Atom), but RSS is by far the most widely used and supported today. RSS files do not have a common file extension, although they frequently end in one of .xml, .rss, or .rdf (note that other extensions may be used also). The term “scraping” refers to creating an RSS feed for a website that doesn’t provide one itself (i.e. scraping the text off of the page). That is, scraped feeds are not created by the same people who created the content within the feed. Scraped RSS feeds may stop working if the page changes its layout.

What is Atom?

Atom is a format quite similar to RSS. It was created by people who felt that RSS could be improved upon, and some that disagreed with some of the politics regarding RSS. Some people are heavily involved in the (quite unimportant, in my opinion) argument as to which format is better. The Atom format is in development, but as of February 2004, Atom version 0.3 is stable. There are pros and cons to the format, but that’s more complex than I am going to deal with here. The basic difference is that while Atom is somewhat more complex (for producers of Atom feeds), it is also able to carry more complex information, and it is consistent across the syndication, storage, and editing of information. Just about everything on this page which discusses RSS applies equally well to Atom. You can learn more about Atom at the official website, AtomEnabled.org.

The RSS Format

This was explained above. For those visual learners, here’s an example:

RSS Format in English Example RSS Feed in English Example RSS Feed in XML
  • Title
  • Link
  • Item
    • Title
    • Link
  • Item
    • Title
    • Link
  • Item
    • Title
    • Link
  • Joe’s Breakfast News
  • www.joe.com/news/
  • Item
    • Orange Juice Voted Best Fruit Juice
    • www.joe.com/news/orange-juice.html
  • Item
    • Acme Introduces New Flakes ’n’ Nuts Cereal
    • www.joe.com/news/flakes-n-nuts.html
  • Item
    • Study Shows More are Skipping Breakfast
    • www.joe.com/news/skipping.html
  • <title>Joe’s Breakfast News</title>
  • <link>http://www.joe.com/news/</link>
    • <item>
    • <title>Orange Juice Voted Best Fruit Juice</title>
    • <link>http://www.joe.com/news/orange-juice.html</link>
    • </item>
    • <item>
    • <title>Acme Introduces New Flakes ’n’ Nuts Cereal</title>
    • <link>http://www.joe.com/news/flakes-n-nuts.html</link>
    • </item>
    • <item>
    • <title>Study Shows More are Skipping Breakfast</title>
    • <link>http://www.joe.com/news/skipping.html</link>
    • </item>

* Note that this example is a simplified version of an actual RSS feed; neither RSS nor Atom looks quite like this.

Glossary

Most of the terms here are explained above or below. I include them here for redundancy, clarity, and organizational purposes.

What Can I do with RSS?

RSS feeds by themselves don’t do much. If you view one in most browsers, you’ll see the raw XML, which is roughly human-readable, but intended for computer programs. You can take a look at the RSS feed for the changes log of this page to get the idea. There a number of applications for RSS feeds; the most popular ones are:

Displaying Headlines on Other Websites

Quite a few websites use RSS to display headlines from other websites, as it provides additional content to their readers. Below is displayed the last seven front-page news headlines from the BBC. The BBC has 68 RSS feeds available. To display these headlines I am using the JavaScript RSS-Box Viewer 0.9b. For a very comprehensive listing of programs that do this, see RSS Parsing Programs by the Utah State Library Division.

Search Engines

RSS-based search engines can be quite useful; their big advantage is that they index individual items rather than pages which may contain many items. There are several good general-purpose RSS-based search engines around today; they are available on Fagan Finder on the Weblogs, Journals, and RSS page.

RSS Aggregators

Probably the most popular use for RSS is in RSS aggregators. Also known as newsreaders and news aggregators, these are dedicated programs which allow you to read RSS files. There are many public aggregators, where someone selects RSS feeds on a certain topic and assembles them together, such as LISFeeds, on librarian topics. Most people, however, want their own personalized aggregator; being able to make your own “newspaper” is one of the big advantages of syndication. These aggregators come in two types: software that you download, and online aggregators. One of the most popular online aggregators is Bloglines. Aggregator software that runs on your own computer may be a standalone program or integrate into a program that you already use, such as Microsoft Outlook and the Mozilla browser. Most (but certainly not all) RSS aggregators use a three-panel layout (shown below); you may already be familiar with this as it is used by other programs such as Microsoft Outlook. A panel on the left shows the RSS feeds that you have subscribed to (the ones you have selected), one on the top shows all the items for that feed, and one at the bottom shows the description and/or linked page for the selected item.
a screenshot of a typical three-panel RSS aggregator

Why Use an RSS Aggregator?

For anyone that reads a half dozen or more pages that have RSS feeds, an aggregator is a necessity. RSS aggregators are set up to periodically check for new items in the feeds you are subscibed to, commonly once every hour. In other words, the news comes to you, rather than you having to go to the news. This saves a tremendous amount of time. Or conversely, you can read many more feeds in the same ammount of time. Many people read several hundred feeds. That just wouldn’t be feasible without an RSS aggregator. Additionally, you avoid all the non-new information on a web page, including the ads, menus, etc.

Choosing an Aggregator

There are many RSS aggregators, and three comprehensive lists of them can be found at Abbe Normal’s Weblog/Wiki, News Aggregators Directory, and Lockergnome’s RSS Resources. What aggregator you should use depends on your own needs. Often it is best to try several out before deciding which you prefer. Needs which differ include how many computers you use, how many feeds you read, how you’d like to read the feeds, etc. If, for example, you use multiple computers, then you probably want to use either an online aggregator such as Bloglines, or an aggregator that allows you to synchronize across multiple computers, such as NewsGator. Some people find it convenient to read RSS feeds in a program that they are already using. For example, My Yahoo! has an RSS module, and NewsGator integrates into Microsoft Outlook. Some people prefer an aggregator that shows new items as a news ticker on their desktop, and others prefer a full-fledged application to read RSS feeds in. I should also note that the aggregators mentioned on this page, with the exception of NewsGator, are all free to use, at the time of this writing.

Aggregators and Atom

Atom being a newer format than RSS, not all aggregators are capable (as of February 2004) of reading Atom feeds. Many new versions of aggregators are, a comprehensive listing of which is available at The AtomEnabled Directory. Some websites produce only Atom feeds and not RSS feeds (most notably those published using the Blogger software), so if you want to read the feeds of these websites, or want to make use of the advantages of Atom feeds, then you would want an aggregator that can understand Atom. If you enjoy using an aggregator that doesn’s understand Atom, but you still want to read websites that syndicate in Atom but not RSS, you can use a tool that converts Atom feeds into RSS feeds, such as Atom2RSS, by 2RSS.

What is OPML?

OPML is an XML format for outlines. You can read more about it on the OPML website. An OPML file can be made that lists all the RSS feeds you subscribe to, and this can be very useful. Many RSS aggregators can produce (export) OPML files, and many can read (import from) them. This is a very useful feature. Suppose that you are using aggregator ABC to read 50 RSS feeds. Your friend tells you that aggregator XYZ is so much better than ABC, so you want to try it out. Rather than re-subscribing to all 50 feeds from XYZ, you can export an OPML file from ABC, and import that file into XYZ, assuming that both aggregators have these features. Many people put their OPML files online, which would allow you to instantly to subscribe to all the feeds that they read. Share Your OPML is one website that makes use of information from many people’s OPML files.

Subscribing to a Feed

There is no agreed-upon standard for how to subscribe to an RSS feed, although some developers are working on this. So there are roughly two ways to subscribe. One is to enter the URL of the RSS feed into your aggregator. The other is to follow a subscribe link from a web page; the problem with this is that practically every aggregator has a different way of doing this. So you might see links labeled as subscribe with Bloglines or add to My Yahoo!. Two services exist to deal with this problem: Syndication Subscription Service and quickSub, which was inspired by the former. Links labeled as Sub will take you to a page on the Syndication Subscription Service which itself contains direct links to subscribing using various aggregators. QuickSub is similar. Links to RSS feeds using the quickSub tool will popup a list of links to subscribing with various aggregators.

Very nice RSS aggregators will allow you to enter in the URL of a web page and it will then read its RSS feed. These tools support RSS auto-discovery (and anyone reading this who is writing RSS applications I encourage to use the Ultra-liberal RSS locator). Most RSS aggregators, unfortunately, aren’t that nice; you’ll need to copy and paste the RSS URL into your aggregator.

Finding RSS Feeds

Finding the RSS Feed for a Website

The websites you already read may have an RSS feed. So you want to find it. Go to BlogStreet’s RSS Discovery tool and enter in a website. It will return the feed for you.

If that doesn’t find the RSS feed, go to the website whose feed you’re looking for; if it has one, then it probably includes a link to it. Try looking on the page’s menu (usually left side or right side) and the footer. Most often RSS feeds are linked to with an small icon. The most common is an XML icon like this: [XML], but there are a number of variations on label (RSS, RSS2, XML, RDF, Atom), colour, and size, such as [RSS] and [RDF]. Other times there may not be an image, but text with one of those lables, or a link labeled “Syndicate this site.” You may also see a variation on the standard XML icon such as [XML] Pill and [XML] Coffee Cup ; these are direct links to subscribing to an RSS feed in AmphetaDesk and Radio UserLand (both are RSS aggregators) respectively. Radio’s coffee cup icon is sometimes shown alone. If you are running one of these news aggregators, click on the icon to subscribe, otherwise just use the usual icon. Note that not all XML icons link to RSS feeds, because there are many other XML formats. If it isn’t labeled or self-evident, just try reading the file in an aggregator; if it doesn’t work, it is probably not an RSS feed.

If you still haven’t found the RSS feed for a website you can try searching in one of the tools listed below. Failing that, write an e-mail to the webmaster and suggest that they create an RSS feed. If they don’t know what that is, you can point them over to this RSS Workshop and these RSS specifications. Lastly, you can scrape the website. MyRSS is a tool for scraping. A number of news aggregators, such as Syndirella, have the ability to “create” an RSS feed, but the feed will only be accessable to people using Syndirella.

Note: the section below was originally based (with permission) on Finding More Channels, a page made by the creator of the AmphetaDesk news aggregator.

Directories

Syndic8
Syndic8 is (mainly) a directory of RSS feeds, over 25,000 of them. You can search (also available on Fagan Finder), or browse the directory (which does not list all of the feeds).
News Is Free
News Is Free is an online news aggregator and a directory of RSS feeds, over 5,000 of them. You can search (also available on Fagan Finder), or browse the directory. News Is Free also provides scraped RSS feeds for a number of websites.
BlogStreet’s RSS Directory
BlogStreet contains a number of blog-related tools. The directory lists the RSS feeds of over 10,000 blogs, organized alphabetically.
RDF-Ticker: Find more channels
RDF-Ticker is an RSS aggregator that displays headlines as a new ticker. Their search (also available on Fagan Finder), includes over 1,800 RSS feeds.
Your Favourite Blog
Many blogs include a blogroll (links to other blogs). Many blogrolls also contain links to the RSS files of those blogs. A good way to find RSS feeds that you’re interested in is by folling links from the blogs you already read.

Search Engine Queries

A number of search engines allow you to view their search results in RSS format. This way, you can monitor the results for a subject that you are interested in.

Daypop
Daypop is a search engine (also available on Fagan Finder) for news, blogs, and RSS feeds (the last is powered by News Is Free). Perform a search, and the result has a link to its RSS feed at the top right of the page.
Feedster
Feedster is a search engine (also available on Fagan Finder) for RSS feeds. Perform a search, and the result has a link to its RSS feed at the top of the page.
BlogDigger
BlogDigger is a search engine (also available on Fagan Finder) for RSS feeds. Perform a search, and the result has a link to its RSS feed at the top right of the page.
Sherch
Sherch lists a number of tools and provides an RSS feed of the results. Unfortunately, it is an old website, and most do not work. Two significant ones that do work are the Internet Movie Database and the Open Directory Project. To use them, click on the link labeled “RSS 1.0 Channel” and add searchterm=[your search terms] to the end of the URL.
Amazon
Sean Nolan has used Amazon’s API to create RSS feeds. The URL for a feed is http://www.yaywastaken.com/amazon/amazon-rss.asp?keywords=[your search terms]
eBay
Use this tool to create a scraped feed of eBay search results. It is based on a script from waxy.org.

Topical Feeds

The Mail Archive
The Mail Archive includes about 2,500 mailing lists; you may be subscribed to one of them already. Search for a list, and click on one of the results. Add maillist.rdf to the URL, and you’ve got an RSS feed.
Yahoo! Groups
Yahoo! Groups is another source of mailing lists. Find a group by searching or browsing (only groups with public archives have feeds available). Then create the RSS feed by adding messages?rss=1 to the URL, to create a feed that looks like http://groups.yahoo.com/group/aggregators/messages?rss=1.
Moreover
Moreover provides RSS feeds for news on over 100 topics, and the news is collected from thousands of sources. This link goes to a listing of all the feeds and a link to their RSS feed.
Network54
Network54 contains forums on entertainment, sports, gaming, and society. Find forums by browsing the directory, and add ;XML=rss to the end of a forum URL to make it an RSS feed.
Blogging Headline News
Blogging Headline News aggregates the RSS feeds from many blogs, and organizes the items into dozens of topics. Each topic has an RSS feed. The topics are shown on the left of the page alphabetically, or you can also view them sorted by popularity.
The Internet Topic Exchange
The Internet Topic Exchange allows anyone to create a topic, and anyone to post items from their blog into that topic. Each topic is available in RSS. So browse the full list of topics, or the topic directory, which lists most of them. The Topic Exchange is currently small but growing every day. Spread the word!
Computing and Technology-Related Feeds
See Meerkat and Network World Fusion.

Blogs and Forums

Many, many blogs have RSS feeds, including blogs published using the popular software Movable Type and Radio UserLand. See Finding the RSS Feed for a Website above.

BlogMatrix
BlogMatrix provides RSS feeds for many blogs that do not have them. Use the search box and enter in the blog’s name.
LiveJournal and DeadJournal
LiveJournal and DeadJournal run over a million journals (blogs), and each is available in RSS. You can find journals by searching on LiveJournal or DeadJournal’s home page for user names or interests. For some searches you will need to be a registered user yourself. Alternately, you can find journals by using any search engine and limiting results to either livejournal.com or deadjournal.com. Once you have found a journal, just add /rss to the end of the URL. For example, http://www.livejournal.com/users/example_user/rss.
QuickTopic
QuickTopic allows anyone to create a topic, which is essentially a forum/bulletin board (although messages are in reverse-chronological order). Each topic is avialable in RSS, by adding .rss to the topic’s URL. It is generally used for discussions that you are already participating in, but you can find existing discussions by searching on any search engine and limiting your query to quicktopic.com. QuickTopic may have its own search engine in the future.
Blog Publishing Software
If you know that website example.com is published using Manila, then the RSS feed is example.com/xml/rss.xml. Blogs published with Movable Type have their RSS feeds located at example.com/index.xml and example.com/index.rdf (two versions of RSS, either should work in any aggregator).
see also myRSS below

Miscellaneous

GeoURL
GeoURL has a database of websites along with the physical location (latitude and longitude) that the website (or creator) lives in. Many, but not all of the websites are blogs. Click on the map, and you will see a listing of websites within 500 miles of the spot you choose. You can click on “recenter” beside any of those websites, or enter in a latitude, longitude, and radius (maximum distance from the point) at the bottom of the page. Just above that form on the bottom are links to RSS feeds for that page. One use for this would be for monitoring new websites that are near you.
SourceForge
SourceForge is a gigantic software development website, where thousands of open source projects are developed. SourceForge itself has a number of RSS feeds, as does every single project.
myRSS
myRSS allows you to create RSS feeds for websites that don’t already have them. The scraping (see paragraph two of this page) isn’t perfect, but it works well for many sites. It is free, but only updates once a day and shows self advertising, unless you sponsor them. So, it would still be a good idea to e-mail the webmasters and ask them to create an RSS feed. People have already used myRSS to create lots of feeds: you can search, browse using DMOZ categories, and check out the top 100 RSS feeds by popularity.

information

This page was last updated on February 19, 2004. See the revisions log for more information.