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How To Keep Your Website Fresh With RSS

© 2006 Jason OConnor

One of the biggest reasons people visit websites is to get information. If you can regularly provide fresh, quality content on your website, you can expect to be rewarded by visitors and return visitors. What’s more, you will be rewarded by the search engines. I recommended that you add new and original content to your site as often as possible, ideally once a day.

Regularly adding fresh and original content:

  • Keeps your site visitors coming back
  • Continually adds value to your website
  • Makes people more comfortable buying from your site
  • Establishes yourself as an authority in your industry
  • Greatly helps your site rank higher in search engines

All of the above factors translate into revenue.

We all know how hard adding original and fresh content is, especially if you’re the business owner. I often don't have the time to add new content. You have to be original, creative, organized, thoughtful and motivated, and above all, able to write. So what's a website owner or business owner supposed to do? RSS may be the answer.

What Is RSS?

Here's the Wikipedia definition of RSS:

RSS is a family of web feed formats specified in XML (a generic specification for data formats) and used for Web syndication. RSS delivers its information as an XML file called an "RSS feed", "webfeed", "RSS stream", or "RSS channel". These RSS feeds provide a way for users to passively receive newly released content (such as text, web pages, sound files, or other media); this might be the full content itself or just a link to it, possibly with a summary or other metadata (data describing the content).

RSS feeds are operated by many news web sites, weblogs, schools, and podcasters.

"RSS" can stand for any of the following phrases:

Really Simple Syndication (RSS 2.0)
Rich Site Summary (RSS 0.91, RSS 1.0)
RDF Site Summary (RSS 0.9 and 1.0)

Want to see an example of RSS in action? Go to the Oak Web Works, LLC homepage and look at the bottom of the right-hand column under the title 'Latest Tech News'. This is actually two RSS feeds from other websites.

Think about this. Our company homepage was very static. It didn't change very much since the services we offer stay basically the same. Why should any visitors come back if every time they browse to our site, the content is exactly the same? They don't have much of a reason. Interestingly, that's the way search engine spiders were programmed to "think" as well. Spiders are programs written for search engines to regularly surf the Web and record what's there. That recording goes into the search engine's databases ready to be accessed by the next searcher. This process is called indexing.

For example, Google will send out a spider to your site and index a lot of it, but not always all of it. It determines how often to revisit and index your site by how often you update it. If you update it every day, then it will visit much more often than if you rarely update it. Engines also consider the homepage to be the most important page, so it's good to update it even more often than the rest of your site.

Again, if you struggle with adding fresh content, then RSS may be the answer. We didn't write the headlines under 'Latest Tech News' on our homepage, the RSS feed grabbed it from another site that had somebody else write them. Once we set the feed up, we don't have to do anything more, and our homepage has regularly updated content. Every time those headlines change, it updates its feed, which is then updated on any websites displaying that feed, including ours.

RSS feeds can be more than news headlines. They can be lists of any kind. They can be press releases, articles, blog entries, product releases, or almost any other grouping of changing or growing data.

How Do I Set An RSS Feed Up?

There are a number of ways in which you can display an RSS feed on your website. You can use Javascript or various other scripting languages. Unfortunately, RSS that uses Javascript is not seen at all by search engines when they come and index your site, so don't use Javascript.

Instead, use a script that can be handled by your Web server besides Javascript. Ask your hosting company or IT people what platform your Web server uses and what software or modules are loaded onto the machine. This will determine what scripting language you can use for your RSS.

Check if your Web server has PHP capabilities. If so, then there are hundreds of scripts written in PHP that you can use for free that properly displays RSS feeds and recognized by search engines. Even if your Web server is Microsoft-based, the server can still have PHP capability, so you could probably still use a PHP script. There are RSS scripts written in ASP.NET, Perl and numerous other languages, so you have a wide variety to choose from.

For the Oak Web Works, LLC homepage we used an ASP script called RSStoHTML.

Which one would you choose? Try a few and see which ones run on your server. If one runs on your server properly, and you check this by simply seeing if it displays RSS feeds, then use that one.

When you download the script, look at the code and find where to add an RSS feed URL. There should be a dummy one in there already, so just replace that one with the RSS feed you want to use. Here's what a typical RSS feed URL looks like: http://www.nytimes.com/services/xml/rss/userland/Technology.xml
The URL's often end in '.rss' as well.

After we inserted the RSS feed URL into the script, we wanted to display the feed in HTML on our homepage. To do this we added the following bit of code into the spot on our homepage html code where we wanted it to display:

<!--#include virtual="RSS2HTML-tech-news-home.asp"-->

Keep in mind that this is for a Windows Web server. The way in which you include it on a website powered by a UNIX Web server will be a little different. If you’re not sure, ask your hosting company.

You can also do a search for your topic and RSS feeds. For example, search for "RSS feeds and pets', or 'football and RSS feeds', or 'small business news feeds'. Finally, you can go to specific websites that are related to your industry and look for one of the orange RSS symbols like the ones below. Click on that and you'll get a feed URL to enter into your RSS feed script.

Remember, always be sure to include feeds that are relevant to your website's content. Once you get the hang of the concept, RSS can be a lot of fun, and definitely keeps your website fresh and updated, just what search engines like, and more importantly, what people like.

Jason OConnor
Copyright 2006

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