RSS is an acronym for Really Simple Syndication. Essentially, it's a way of publishing and viewing content through an XML feed which is then viewed by users using special software, or browser feature called an "aggregator". Ignore the technobabble, in summary it's an easy and effective way of delivering news items and summaries to your users and clients.
Even though RSS has been around for some years, it's still in its infancy in terms of being a promotional/revenue generating strategy. Since major search engines such as Yahoo and more recently Google and MSN commenced spidering RSS feeds; it's probably time to start examining and experimenting with RSS web feeds now.
FireFox has supported RSS for quite a while and Internet Explorer 7 has built-in RSS feed support (known as web feeds), so I'm expecting awareness to have an added boost when IE7 is released.
RSS poses some challenges for marketers in terms of knowing who's viewing their feeds and how they are interacting with it. It's an "on demand" service. Regardless, given that in the future it may be the way that many people view subscription content, it's a technology that can't be ignored. Use it as an adjunct to your newsletters, not a a replacement.
While there are many tools currently under development to assist web marketers in understanding metrics in relation to feeds, unless you have megabucks to spend, it's effectiveness can only really be gauged by tracking clicks from feed items.
If you're totally new to RSS, this article will run through the various aspects at both ends of the spectrum - subscribing to and creating your own RSS Web Feed; then equally as importantly, submitting it to search engines.
Subscribing to RSS web feeds.
If you don't yet have an aggregator, I recommend RSS reader, it's desktop freeware and very easy to use. If you're using FireFox or Internet Explorer 7, then you are ready to start subscribing. A very popular free online aggregator service is Bloglines:
Next, you'll need to find a feed to subscribe to. These can usually be found by looking for this button on sites:
The latter icon rapidly becoming industry "standard" - Firefox uses it and so will IE7.
These are most commonly seen at the moment on blogs, as most blogging software includes the feature by default. The RSS feed item is created automatically by the blogging software once a post has been made.
Click on the button above and you'll be able to see the way the code for Taming the Beast.net's Web Marketing and Ecommerce feed looks. It's not pretty when viewed in a non-feed supporting browser window, but once you copy the URL to your aggregator (in Feedreader, it's the "Add" button), the items on that page should display as individual pieces, nicely formatted and dated.
Creating your own RSS web feed
To create your own web feed is very simple. You'll need an RSS editor and I recommend FeedEdit - another freeware, easy-to-use application.
Once you've installed FeedEdit, start a new file and then edit the "Channel Properties" to provide basic information about your feed. Completing the "Optional" tabs on the channel properties can help with making adding new items more streamlined.
When you've completed that, save the file with a relevant name somewhere in your web - the .xml extension will be added. Then you can start on adding new items using the "Add item" feature. Remember to add a link to the full version of item on your web site. The "Description" box is where you paste your content into - you can use any of the common html tags. Once you've finished entering that item, click "Apply". You can then continue adding individual items this way. Once you've finished, save, then publish up your site as you normally would. Done!
Tip: I recommend only putting summaries of items in your feed, otherwise the code can get mighty long. If you have a high traffic site, this can impact on your bandwidth usage. Also, as you add new items, delete older ones to decrease bandwidth usage. I keep the 10 latest items live on the feed. For previous items, depending on their RSS aggregator settings, these may be stored on the users computer. The other reason for only using summaries is to encourage people to visit your site, where they can be exposed to your other offerings.
Submitting and promoting your RSS web feed
Now you have your feed up and running, you'll need to let people know about it! The first step is to promote it from your site. People with RSS readers have been accustomed to seeing this button:
... but increasingly, they'll start looking for this
.. so, I suggest you grab a copy of that image (right mouse button click and select "save picture as"), then link it to the XML file you created. You may even wish to link it to a page that first describes what an RSS feed is and how to use it - bear in mind that generally speaking, few people are using RSS readers, so you may be introducing a new concept to them.
Firefox and IE7 will do great things for pushing along RSS adoption as they both have the ability to render feeds nicely. Importantly, both these browsers can also detect if a feed exists on a site and alert subscribers to new items having been posted. In order to flag these browsers of your feed's existence, you'll need to have a special tag in the source code of your blog and site pages. Learn more about RSS feed autodiscovery.
Submitting web feeds to search engines
One of the great things about getting into something relatively new is that you have a chance to establish yourself, refining your feed until such time that that RSS adoption becomes mainstream. At that point, you can be way ahead of your competitors. Part of getting established is presence, and like with the rest of your web pages, you'll want to get into search engines.
As mentioned earlier, Google, MSN and Yahoo now spider feeds. While feeds aren't displayed as such in Google or MSN's general results as yet, I'm sure they are building up to it :).
Submitting an RSS web feed to Google
To ensure your feed is spidered by Google, you'll need to sign up for Your Google homepage aka Google Ig or Google Reader. Then either add your feed to either service. In Google Ig, you add your feed via the "Create a section" feature - it's very quick to do. Alternatively, simply copy the button below, alter the link code to suit and click it:
Of course, now you have the button, make sure you actually use it on your site to make it easy for your visitors to add your RSS web feed to their Google account :).
Submitting an RSS feed to Yahoo
First, you'll need to have a profile on My Yahoo. Once that's set up, from your My Yahoo profile page, Click the "Add content" link on the top menu. Next to the "Find" button on the next page, you'll see an "Add RSS by URL" link. Click that, then on the next page, enter the URL. Done! When your feed is added to Yahoo's results, on the search engine listing for the feed, you'll see an "Add to My Yahoo" link, which makes it very easy for Y! users to add the feed to their profile.
The other great thing about the Yahoo service is that you can provide a button on your site where users can easily add your feed to their Yahoo profile. Copy the button below and alter the link code to suit:
Submitting an RSS feed to MSN
It's the same sort of deal as with Yahoo, but like Google, RSS web feeds aren't appearing in their results just yet. Your feed can be spidered by adding it to your "My MSN" profile, or encouraging your users to add it to theirs.
For MSN users: Copy the button below and alter the link code to suit:
Other RSS search engines
Long before Yahoo, MSN and Google started spidering web feeds, many other search engines popped up that specialized in RSS/XML feeds. Submission is usually free and straightforward, you just enter the URL of your feed. Among the more popular services:
A great listing of engines you can submit your feed to is on the the RSS Specifications site. Before submitting your feed, ensure it checks out by using the RSS Feed Validator. As with any other search engine, also be sure to read the guidelines before submitting to any RSS engine.
Good luck with your forays into RSS web feeds! Remember to add our feed for news on tools and strategies for promoting yours!
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