Explaining RSS not simple (for me)

Explaining RSS not simple (for me)

I teach a lot of social media and Internet strategy seminars. The feedback forms always say I have a way of making the complex comprehensible. Since they are anonymous forms, I trust they accurately reflect people’s experience. But there is one topic (at least) I feel I have been incapable of explaining well. Ironically, that topic is Really Simple Syndication (RSS).

Wikipedia defines RSS as “a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated works — such as blog entries, news headlines, audio and video — in a standardized format.”

As an ex-newsie, this just makes sense to me. My experience is that most people simply glaze over at this explanation. For a more accessible explanation of RSS, search Google for the phrase “RSS in plain English,” which calls up the excellent Common Craft video.

Common Craft describes RSS as the way to get news and blogs to come to you, which is true for readers.

However, there is more to RSS than just subscription functionality. RSS can be seen from at least three distinct angles: As a reader convenience, as a mode of content transport or as a monitoring mechanism.

The reader convenience aspect of RSS is perhaps the easiest to explain. Let’s say you want to read the headlines from your daily newspaper, but you don’t want to go to the newspaper’s website. All you need is RSS reader software and you can subscribe to those headlines. You might ask what’s the big deal? Getting the headlines in your software seems about the same as getting them on the website, right?

True, but it really starts to get efficient if you read multiple publications per week. Instead of visiting multiple sites, you go to your reader and get all your subscriptions in one spot.

The second view of RSS, as a mode of content transport, is essentially the opposite of the above. It is a publisher-centric view that emphasizes spreading content around the web. It espouses the philosophy that content should find readers, not the other way around.

This is where I usually lose my students; let me try a new simile — RSS for publishers is like a garden hose leading to a sprinkler.

Think about it. If you are a gardener your goal is to get water from the tap, across the lawn, into the sprinkler and onto the greenery you hope will flourish. If you are a content provider, you hope to get your content out of your blog, across the Internet and sprinkled around places where your audience can grow.

Still with me?

Just like hoses, taps and sprinklers have standard connectors, so too does RSS. You can take your RSS feed out of your blog (screw the hose into the tap), run the hose across the Internet to a service like dlvr.it (the sprinkler) and dlvr.it connects handily to your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts to gently spray your tender green readers with thirst-quenching content.

Content syndication like a sprinkler.

The third way of looking at RSS is akin to what we called a clipping service in the old days. A clipping service would literally sit down and read the newspaper, looking for mentions of your company or keywords or concepts, and cut it out. They would then glue them into a book and provide you with a stack of clips about your important topics.

Now search engines look for Internet key words and mentions, with Google Alerts being the leading free service. Most searches can be “exported” as an RSS feed (more like subscribed to), which means you can have a constant stream of who mentions your company, executives, products or competitors. This steady stream of raw data becomes unmanageable pretty quickly, so it’s wise to use Google Reader or other RSS software (I prefer the “dashboard” feel of Netvibes.com) to organize and sort these mentions.

Commercial alternatives to free RSS monitoring abound, and they set themselves apart from the freebies by adding robust analytics and team-sharing features. Radian6, Sysomos, Jive Software, Meltwater and numerous others are available for the corporate set. But little old free RSS clipping is still useful to start with, even if just to refine search terms and set a baseline.

RSS has a role to play whether you are a reader, a publisher or a reputation manager. In many ways it is the backbone of Internet publishing. And for some of us, it is anything but simple.

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