Mention RSS to non-techies and their eyes assume a faraway look that tells you that you’re better off changing the subject. Really Simple Syndication is seen by most people as being anything but simple. Their early experience with the little orange buttons that grace most websites has been that clicking on them resulted in a screen full of cryptic text that prompted them to quickly close the browser window and take a deep breath.
RSS is widely misunderstood. People think that its main use is by the small number of techies who have the time and expertise to consolidate all their information in feed readers. But the main audience for RSS is machines, which are increasingly incorporating RSS feeds into the information streams that power websites.
Let’s look at a silly example: here’s a page about cheese on the popular website Alltop.com. Alltop is a huge engine of information about nearly any topic you can imagine, yet it produces no original content. All of its information consists of headlines provided as RSS feeds from the websites it indexes. Mouse over any of those headlines and you get an expanded description that tells you whether the information is of interest.
Now head on over to BlogHer, the popular site for women bloggers. Nearly everything at the top of this page comes via RSS feeds. BlogHer automatically collects the latest posts from members of its network and streams the headlines to its home page.
It’s the same at Engadget, which is one of the top 10 blogs on the Internet. Nearly the entire right side of this page is given over to content delivered in the form of RSS feeds.
So you can see that the audience for RSS feeds isn’t individuals, it’s websites. They can potentially magnify your content to reach thousands of other people. It gives you the potential to reach much larger audiences than you could with just your own small online outpost.
RSS also has personal productivity benefits. If you look at my own home page on the right side under the “Speaking” banner, you’ll see a list of upcoming events at which I am presenting. I don’t post this content myself; its origins are this collection of Delicious bookmarks. By inserting a small snippet of code on my home page, I can have items that I bookmark distributed automatically. To add an item, I simply bookmark it, modify the description and give it the appropriate tag. All of the websites that I own are updated instantaneously.
You can even use RSS to feed your own information needs. Look at this page of Twitter search results for the query “global warming.” Note the orange button in the upper right corner. Click it, copy the URL in the address bar and plug it into any RSS widget to display the Twitter search results on a website. Every time you refresh the page, the latest search results are added to the mix.
Nearly anything you read or publish on the Internet these days can be formatted as an RSS feed. Once it’s in that form, it can be syndicated anywhere else. That’s the real power of RSS. It gives you the means to flexibly reuse and syndicate content to reach a much wider audience with very little effort.