This page answers the question "What is RSS?" for two types of people: technical and non-technical. Read the section that applies to you.

For non-technical people

RSS is a data format for blogs (what's a blog?) and other news-like websites to publish their stories. An RSS page is often called an RSS feed, because it is like a stream of stories being fed from one computer to another. RSS feeds aren't meant to be read by people directly — they're meant to be read by software called an RSS reader. An RSS reader will read a number of different RSS feeds, and organize them for you so that you can browse through them to find the stories you want to read.

RSS readers

RSS readers can make blog reading more efficient by alerting you to updated blogs, and by displaying summaries or entire stories in your reader without you having to visit each blog individually. RSS feeds include links back to the original blog so you can always choose to visit the original site from your reader if you choose.

There are many different RSS readers to choose from, and they can run on your computer, or be accessed on the Web. Examples include:

  • On the Mac, NetNewsWire is highly regarded.
  • On Windows, Awasu is very full-featured.
  • On the Web, Bloglines is a nice RSS reader in a browser.

There are many more readers than this, and more are being developed all the time. More extensive lists of reader software are available on the RSS Reader pages at Abbe Normal and Weblogs Compendium, or you can search Google for RSS Readers.

How it works

When a blog author pens yet another pithy post, she updates her blog to add the new story. People who visit the page in their browser will see the new entry. She (or her blog software) also updates her RSS feed, so that the new story is represented there as well. RSS readers check their RSS feeds periodically (often on a configurable schedule). When they see that a feed has been updated, they read the updated RSS data, and mark the blog as having a new story to read.

When you next look at your RSS reader, the blog will be highlighted (for example, it may appear in bold type), and the new story will be displayed for you to read.

RSS readers try to make it really easy for you to subscribe to new feeds. Often you don't need to worry about the location of the RSS feed, you can simply point the reader at the blog's home page, and it will figure out where the RSS feed is automatically. Occasionally, this won't work, and you may need to locate the RSS feed yourself. Many sites use an orange button for the RSS feed.

For technical people

RSS is an XML data format for weblogs and other news-like websites to publish their stories.

There have been a handful of different RSS formats, known as RSS 0.91, RSS 1.0, and RSS 2.0. RSS readers seem quite happy to read any of these formats.

The meaning of the acronym RSS has changed with the different versions, from "RDF Site Summary" to "Rich Site Summary" to "Really Simple Syndication". Who designed RSS is the subject of much debate, some of which has become inexplicably rancorous at times.

In addition, there is a similar but different protocol called Atom for syndicating blog stories.

RSS includes at least the title and URL of the weblog, and for each item, the title, date, and description. The description can be as little as a plain text summary of the item, or the full HTML of the item, including images.

If you are producing an RSS feed, you can check it with a feed validator.

See also

  • XML.com's What is RSS? article, which goes into more detail.
  • My What's a blog?, which explains what a blog is.
  • My blog, which may cover similar topics from time to time.