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An RSS 2.0 Crash Course

Posted by Fred LeBlanc on October 24, 2005.

I saw our first 'non-iMarcian' comment yesterday, and it was asking about RSS. Not only have I never really built anything RSS related, I've never even looked into using it. Sounding like a fun challenge, at 6:30pm on Sunday I made my first Google search and within an hour and a half, I had an RSS feed for our blog ready to go.

Since things were so simple, I thought I'd share how I went about building things to maybe help those that are interested in it.

The first thing I looked up was "What is RSS" in Google. This returned a couple of good articles, mainly the full explanation from everyone's favorite encyclopedia (except China), Wikipedia. RSS stands for "Really Simple Syndication" and is used to port fresh content from a Website to an aggregator. Cool.

Next, I needed to find out the specifications for RSS. This returned a Harvard Law Website, which at first seemed weird but hey, if you can't trust Harvard Law these days, who can you trust?

It turns out that this page would be all that I'd really need.

Not only did this site provided the basic explanation for RSS again, but also gave sample files right off to get a feel for what I was going to build. I love it when tutorials do that, because I'd rather see what I'll be creating, and then have each piece explained to me. In fact, I'm sure you could get everything you want from that page, so I'll just use this as a general overview of steps and the 'gotchas' I came across along the way.

Note, this is geared towards making an RSS feed for your blog, but you can easily incorporate this information into make an RSS feed for anything.

The first thing to decide on is what standard you want to adhere to. I chose 2.0, mainly because it seemed the most recent, and is what all of the cool tech sites (or mainly digg.com) use.

To start your feed, declare your XML intentions and then open an rss tag, and inside of that, start a channel tag:
You'll see that the RSS version is defined within the rss tag. A channel is just another name for your feed.

Before loading items, we have to create a title and description for our RSS feed. This will be used by aggregators to determine where the feed came from and what it's about. We do this by adding some tags not inside an item tag. This is what we used:
Communiqué iMarc's blog en-us Copyright 2005, iMarc LLC http://www.imarc.net/communique
These should be pretty self-explanatory. A couple of notes: title, description and link are all required, the rest were just added as options. More options include managingEditor, webMaster, pubDate, lastBuildDate, category, generator, docs, cloud, ttl (time to live), image, rating (based on PICS), textInput, skipHours and skipMinutes. Again, no need in re-inventing the wheel, read all about it here.

Now that we have our channel defined (which again, is just your feed), we need to add items. Each item you add will be one entry displayed in your feed. Simple enough.

Items use a lot of the same tags as channel, and just using the basics are pretty much good enough. Here is a sample item based on the tags that we used:
Blog Title This is a sample description of my blog entry. Sun, 23 Oct 2005 20:05:12 EDT /communique/view/1/blog_title /communique/view/1/blog_title#comments /communique/view/1/blog_title
You'll notice a couple of new tags here. First, the pubDate tag. This date must "conform to the Date and Time Specification of RFC 822, with the exception that the year may be expressed with two characters or four characters (four preferred)." If you are looking to do this with PHP's date() function, use this:
Also, guid (which stands for globally unique identifier) is used by aggregators to determine if a feed has new entries or not. Think of this as the primary key in MySQL. Further research said that there is no required syntax for this, but from what I find there are a couple of standards that you should try and follow:
Use Your Website
Start your guid with your website, that way you never accidentally copy over another feed from another site.

Use a Link that Links to Your Site/Entry
Opera seems to use the guid as the link to the item you're talking about instead of the actual link tag. I'm not sure why, but just a heads up.
The comments tag is the URL users can type in to read or leave comments about each item.

You can add as many of these item tags as you'd like. When you're done adding items, all you have to is close your channel and rss tags, like so:
Save your file as a ".xml" file and there you have it: your very first RSS feed.

It's a good idea to validate your feed once you have it created. I used FeedValidator.org to accomplish this, as they give you a very simple interface with clear error messaging.

I found there were a couple of common errors that kept getting returned. Since our blog is called "Communiqué", the é kept causing problems (in fact not just in the RSS feed, but around the site too, for links and such). You should use HTML entities when creating characters like this, but in this case, I took a different road. To convert our titles into nice search engine friendly ones, we created a PHP function that takes a string of text (which would be your title in most cases), strips out the weird characters, converts spaces to underscores, and converts accented characters to non-accented versions of the same character. While this may seem like a bad practice, we took into account a couple of key thoughts:
  1. Most people won't confuse a word without accents with a word with the appropriate accents when it's used in context.
  2. A blog is about communication, and communication is information travelling from one person to another person intact. Without these accents, the message will still get through correctly 99.9% of the time.
  3. Building off #2, well, you can't please all of the people all of the time.
To get this page to be dynamic, I built a PHP script to create this feed, and set up cron to hit the feed-creator page every twenty minutes. This is probably overkill for us for now, but the amount of resources it takes is minimal enough that it isn't a problem. The page simply builds up a feed into one long string and then writes that string out to our feed XML page. Easy, and everything works correctly.

Finally (yes, finally), the concept of live bookmarking. We all use Mozilla's Firefox aroundFigure 1: Live Bookmark Icon the office here, and with this browser comes the option of live bookmarking. This allows you to subscribe to a feed as a bookmark, and it automatically refreshes throughout the day. (If you're on Firefox, down at the bottom of your screen there should be a small orange icon in the status bar. Click that.) At first I was perplexed as to how to get this to appear, but found the solution. It all happens in your page's head tag:
The title is what will pop up when a user clicks on the orange icon, and it's used to tell which feed they're subscribing too. This is good if you have multiple feeds on one page. The href points to your RSS feed (just like you'd create an HTML link). You can have as many of these tags as you want, and each will list separately in the list of options in which users can subscribe.

And there you have it, an RSS crash course. I went from just knowing of this technology to having a decent handle on it in about ninety minutes, and its application seems greatly useful all over the place (and all thanks to the user comment my last entry received). Hope this helps, and if you have any tips of your own, please add them in a comment below.

Webmail That Works

Posted by Will Bond on October 24, 2005.

I really want a webmail that works for me. I have spent alot of time looking, but I still can't find it. Email is supposed to make my life easier, not harder. I don't want my email downloaded to a computer at home so I can't access it at work or vice versa. I want to be able to check all five of my email accounts in once place with one click. I want the basic functionality of Thunderbird in a webmail. Why is this so hard to find?

I have tried Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, Verio-based webmail, plus about 15 different php-based webmail systems and none of them do what I need. Features I need include:
  • Check multiple POP3 accounts with one click
  • Folders that can contain subfolders
  • Send email from any of my five accounts
  • Spam filter
  • Message filters
In addition to this I would love to be able to check POP3 over SSL, but that is not a requirement. I will rejoice the day that I can find a webmail that works for me. Until then, I will continue using paid Yahoo mail ($20 a year) that does almost everything I need (each POP3 account has to be checked seperately and you can not have subfolders). And yes, I am willing to pay a reasonable fee to make my life simpler.

Attention Blogosphere: We're Here

Posted by Fred LeBlanc on October 21, 2005.

I suppose this was only a matter of time. Of course, being the guy that kept pushing for it, I think this is a huge step forward for the company, although for now it may seem like just another blog. That being said, there's been a bit of discussion as to what should actually be posted over here. Should this place be where we discuss what we're working on internally? How about new technologies that we come across? Maybe we should write about projects that have recently launched, what we've learned, and what we'll do different. My opinion? All of the above, and more. The thing that makes iMarc such an interesting company is the culture that one will find just by taking the grand tour. (By the way, I'm not sure if the 'grand tour' is open to the public, call for details if you're really that interested.) The music, the environment, the dogs, all of it make iMarc just a little bit different than what you might be expecting. While we're always building something, that isn't all we do each day. We research, we grow, we learn, we share, we expand, and this blog should be an extension of us. At least a couple times a day I hear (or say), "Whoa, guys, come check this out!" In addition to talking about general company stuff, it is this general excitement in what we do that should also be explored for everyone to see as well. While we're all a bit nervous about the blog right now, not just with concern about what to put here but also with the excitement in the ability of being able to post things here, hopefully this section better displays who we are as a team and individuals. But for now, Craig just put on The Cranberries, and my copy of Zend Studio 5 beta 2 just finished downloading; it's time to check things out. Check back soon for more, and leave your thoughts.

Ajax: Mythic (Web) Hero

Posted by Will Bond on October 21, 2005.

According to princeton.edu, Ajax is "a mythical Greek hero; a warrior who fought against Troy in the Iliad". While certainly an interesting story, most of you are probably more interested in the mythic (web) hero AJAX. Lots of web developers, and even just regular internet users, have been hearing this term being thrown around. You probably even know that it stands for Asynchronous Javascript And XML. It is a way for specific content on a web page to be refreshed without the whole page having to be reloaded. This has the obvious benefits of saving both time and bandwidth. In fact, most sites have a small portion of content that changes between pages, with a larger amount being static. The Web 2.0, a revolutionizing of the internet that AJAX will be central player in, is another hot topic being widely discussed. AJAX may be cool, and revolutionary, but I think it will be a while before it brings about such drastic changes. There are a lot of reasons why AJAX is good, and useful, however in some circles AJAX has embraced it a little too quickly. GMail was one of the first major uses of AJAX on the web. There are many great aspects to GMail, however, I contest that AJAX is the cause of one of the significant frustrations. Since AJAX refreshes information on a page without actually reloading the whole thing, navigation buttons are the first things to break. In addition, pages are impossible to bookmark and email to friends since your browser does not know the current state of the page. This brings back bad memories of browsing around sites built completely in flash. In short, this is a fairly major usability issue. Google has taken some time to try and fix this in GMail by patching the back button, but unfortunately the forward button seems to have been neglected. While AJAX has the potential to revolutionize the web, I believe that more work is required for a seamless environment before more large scale systems are based on it. Perhaps browsers will soon start to track dynamic updates via Javascript, or maybe a serious effort will needed to change people's browsing habits. Until then, AJAX is a logical choice for smaller scale installations. There are numerous places where pop-up windows and selector screens can be replaced by small AJAX applications. This, most certainly, will help to improve usability, which is a good thing in anyone's book.

It's a Beautiful Thing: Copelas Painting

Posted by Nils Menten on October 19, 2005.

Blog image

iMarc LLC (http://www.imarc.net) recently completed and launched a web site for Beverly's Copelas Painting.

Founded in 2000, Copelas Painting has grown rapidly. With a solid presence in the North Shore community, Copelas has a large base of very happy clients serviced by its fleet of trucks and professional painters and carpenters.

Copelas wanted an attractive website that would help prequalify clients and generate requests for quotes. To demonstrate Copelas' range of experience and past projects, the site features photo galleries, and every page has a strong call to action to help convert anonymous web visitors to active inquiries.

"My favorite part of working with iMarc was the speed with which they took my site from idea to up-and-running," said owner Jeffrey Copelas. "This was a lot of help with my busy schedule. The site lets me change content as my business grows and show people what I want them to see."

iMarc created a database-driven photo gallery management system to enable Copelas to directly control and update the web site. With the galleries, potential clients can see the quality of work done for Copelas's upscale clientele. And since good references are key to winning projects, the site includes testimonials from past customers.

About Copelas Painting
Copelas Painting (www.copelaspainting.com) was founded by Jeffrey Copelas in 2000, and in just five years has grown from a sole proprietorship to a full-service home improvement firm with 14 employees. Jeffry Copelas has 12 years experience in the field. Serving Essex County and the North Shore, Copelas has many happy customers, including home owners, interior decorators, and commercial contractors.

About iMarc
iMarc is a skilled team of designers, programmers, and business development experts, focused on building user-focused web sites and online applications. Since its founding in 1997, iMarc has created digital asset management applications; ecommerce, social networking, intranets and member association websites, and literally hunders of other websites and branding solutions for clients world-wide. iMarc's portfolio is available online at www.imarc.net/portfolio.

Job Opening: Sales / New Business Development

Posted by Nils Menten on August 25, 2005.

iMarc seeks a talented sales and new business development specialist, with a demonstrated track record of success in helping customers define goals, and manage projects to completion. The ideal candidate has at least 3 years of internet-related experience including at least one year in business development /sales. This person needs to be a creative thinker, who can assist customers in identifying business opportunities and devising web based solutions. Excellent writing and presentation skills are a must, some familiarity with graphics applications and presentation tools would be nice, and above all the successful applicant will be professional, self-motivated, organized and highly ethical. For this position we'll structure a salary plus commission plan that will net a successful candidate 60-100k+ annually, with company-paid expenses. To apply, send your resume with references, cover letter, and at least 2 writing samples to careers@imarc.net. Please-no phone calls. We'll review all submissions and respond back to qualified applicants to schedule interviews. What iMarc Offers - Competitive salary - Excellent benefits including health and dental coverage - Company-sponsored retirement plan - A fun, creative work environment, in excellent surroundings - Challenging, varied projects - Paid health club membership - Paid home Internet access How To Apply Email a PDF or Plain Text resume to careers@imarc.net About iMarc iMarc is an 8 year-old interactive agency located in Newburyport, Massachusetts. iMarc creates dynamic web sites, intranets, extranets, and secure ecommerce solutions for businesses large and small. iMarc also does excellent branding and creative work, and designs web sites that meet the highest standards for usability and search-engine readiness. iMarc has an excellent, referenceable client list, and enjoys long-term relationships with many excellent companies.

Premier Financial Services chooses iMarc

Posted by Nils Menten on March 3, 2005.

As the market for exotic and luxury cars continues to expand, so does the need for more flexible financing options. Discerning auto collectors are turning to leasing as a more convenient otion with some attractive features, and Premeir Financial Services is a market leader in this specialized leasing sector. PFS selected iMarc to help design a web site that will improve company's branding on-line, and position the company for growth. PFS leveraged iMarc's experience in positioning and promoting ultra-premium brands to build a site that is not only appealing to the discriminating viewer, but efficient at converting visitors into clients - function and form combined to deliver maximum Return on Investment. The site includes integrated content management for easy administration by PFS, and iMarc's trademark modular architecture that enables PFS to "re-skin" the site without a fork-lift upgrade. In addition, integrated ad campaign tools help track and report on linking performance, which helps optimize the company's marketing campaigns. For more information on Premier Financial Services, visit their web site at www.premierfinancialservices.com.

6 Boston Real Estate Associations Go Live with iMarc

Posted by Nils Menten on February 3, 2005.

The Greater Boston Real Estate Board (GBREB) , a non-profit trade association representing over 8,000 real estate professionals through five associated organizations, has recently launched 6 new web sites designed by iMarc. The associations include: Greater Boston Real Estate Board Greater Boston Association of Realtors Building Owners and Managers Association Commercial Broker's Association Real Estate Finance Association Rental Housing Association iMarc delivered a unique, unified site architecture that helps each association leverage the Internet more efficiently, improve member service delivery, increase public awareness, and reduce association management expenses. The result is a series of sites that deliver savings through economies of scale, yet with enough flexibility for each association to manage it's own content and branding. Site features include: * Integrated architecture to facilitate inter-association navigation * Both public and private sections * News & events with on-line registration * On-line publications * Integrated e-newsletter system * Integrated content management system To learn more about the Greater Boston Real Estate Board and related associations, visit www.gbreb.com or call 617-423-8700.

Concordant partners with iMarc for building on-line presence

Posted by Nils Menten on November 22, 2004.

Concordant is a leading provider of infrastructure solutions to regulated industries, including Healthcare, Financial Services and Pharmaceuticals. The company provides a top-down review and analysis of a company's security and compliance with HIPAA, SOX, FDA and other regulations, then follows up with expert implementation of proven hardware and software solutions. With rising concern for corporate liability, compliance management has seen some explosive growth. As a result, Concordant wanted to upgrade its image and improve communication with current and prospective clients through its web site. Concordant selected iMarc to help construct the new site, and in the process re-evaluate the company's approach to addressing the needs of each vertical segment. iMarc conducted a needs assessment, then divided the project into two phases. The first phase was a complete redesign, delivered in one week, in order to address the immediate branding concerns imposed by rising demand for the company's services. The second phase involved a more thorough design and development process to addesss long-term objectives. The final site was designed to provide a smooth transition between the various phases of conversion. Each call to action encourages engagement, without forcing it. Education is an important factor in raising awareness for Concordant's services, therefore special attention was given to the company's ecucation programs. In addition, industry news is integrated with company news. The site includes an integrated content management system for easy maintenance. News, case studies and front page hot buttons can be changed on the fly through web forms, helping reduce the effort of maintaining the site. For more information on Concordant, visit their website at www.concordantinc.com

iMarc Launches MassSAVE website

Posted by Nils Menten on October 1, 2004.

NEWTON, Mass., Sept. 30, 2004 – To help counter volatile oil, gas and energy prices, the state's electric and gas distribution companies and energy efficiency providers* have joined together to launch MassSAVE on Oct. 1, 2004. Coinciding with "National Energy Awareness Month," this regional program is designed to assist consumers throughout Mass. with home energy solutions that will save money, help reduce dependence on foreign oil, increase a home's comfort level and benefit the environment. A Web site, www.masssave.com, officially introduces the program and guides consumers through a myriad of programs and tips providing year-round home energy solutions, incentives and rebates. No cost, in-home services offered by MassSAVE can significantly reduce heating and energy bills by up to 30 percent, or about $400 per year, for the average family. Utilities and energy efficiency providers are offering educational materials, installation of energy saving measures and inspections to ensure the home's optimal performance is achieved. Financing and incentives are available for a variety of high efficiency improvements including the installation of wall insulation and air sealing throughout the home. Rebates are also available for several ENERGY STAR® products, which meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standards for maximum energy efficiency. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) and the state's Office Of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation endorse MassSAVE. DOER Commissioner David O'Connor said, "The end of daylight saving time coming up and people using energy in the home for longer periods, in addition to an upcoming New England winter, means that we all need to start conserving our energy resources right now. Improving the efficiency of our homes is paramount to this effort and MassSAVE will contribute a great deal. We hope that consumers throughout the state will take advantage of this important initiative." Massachusetts Consumer Affairs Director Beth Lindstrom added, "Unexpected cold snaps and greater oil demand will continue to drive up prices of heating oil for consumers. With MassSAVE, residents of the Commonwealth can protect themselves by ensuring their homes are as energy efficient as possible, whether they heat with oil or gas." To learn more about MassSAVE, visit www.masssave.com, or call 1-866-527-7283. * Participants are Bay State Gas Company, Berkshire Gas Company, Cape Light Compact, Keyspan Energy Delivery, Massachusetts Electric, Nantucket Electric, New England Gas Company, NSTAR Electric and Gas, Western Massachusetts Electric Company, and Unitil. MassSAVE is a Residential Conservation Service Program funded by gas and electric ratepayers. The program is operated according to state law and under the regulations of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Energy and the DOER. Some restrictions apply and the program is subject to change. Customers with limited incomes are eligible for free services. Referrals will be made to local agencies.