Thursday, August 30, 2007

What’s an RSS Feed?

Subscribing to an RSS feed allows you to determine at a glance whether there are new postings you've never read on a favorite information site. Using a "feed reader," or "news aggregator" allows you to follow many feeds at once, only visiting them if a new item catches your attention. A website must deliberately provide support for RSS (Really Simple Syndication), but today most major news and information sites do. Major sites such as Time Magazine's website host many different feeds on specific topic categories, such as Politics, Technology and World.

While there are news aggregator applications (programs) you can download to your computer and install, I recommend online feed readers which you simply use from your Web browser. You can use these readers from any computer with an Internet connection and a Web browser, freeing you from having to use any particular computer to read your feeds. Try Bloglines or Google Reader (especially if you've already got a Google/Gmail account) to see how a feed reader might serve you. Online readers are typically free and easy to use.

Most readers provide a view of all of your subscriptions. Selecting a subscription reveals a list of topics and (optionally) the first few lines of the article. Clicking on an article title reveals the full content of the article. All readers have a mechanism to help you quickly discriminate articles that you've either read (by clicking) or skipped (by scrolling past topic headlines) from unread articles - typically displaying unread titles in boldface. This allows you to quickly skim the titles for new content which interests you.

The orange icon to the left is the official icon for RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds. If you look carefully at the home page of your favorite information site, you will likely find a very small version of this icon, or a link labeled "RSS," discreetly placed in a corner of the page. By clicking on this icon, your Web browser will ask you how you wish to subscribe to the feed, typically providing a list of online readers, and also giving you the option of indicating an application you have installed on your computer's hard drive to use as a feed reader.

Some sites may also provide links to specific online (as opposed to application-based) feed readers. They often use small buttons bearing the logo of the various online readers. (At left are examples of a few of the popular reader subscription buttons.) If they provide a link to the online aggregator you happen to use, this can be very handy, enabling you to subscribe in a few clicks. (You can try this yourself by clicking on the "Subscribe" link in the sidebar of this page.)

  • All major news organizations’ sites offer RSS feeds. I subscribe to the Greensboro News & Record site to occasionally see headlines from my hometown newspaper. The News & Record site offers further fine-control, or granularity, by offering feeds for specific by-lines, topics such as sports or obituaries, and townships within their subscribership.
  • Many non-news sites provide feeds to some of their content. Car&Driver's website, for example, provides a Latest News feed (though I can't now find where I originally found this feed - I haven't found it on their site).
  • Manufacturers may keep customers or potential customers apprised of product news via RSS. Here are the many feeds Apple computer hosts.
  • The online classified ad site craigslist provides feeds of search results. So, for example, you could subscribe to a feed which only lists items matching "vintage bottle" for your geographic area.
  • Apple's iTunes Store RSS Feed Generator lets users customize feeds to, for instance, see the 25 newest German folk releases.
  • This blog and most others are available as an RSS feed (see "Subscribe" in the sidebar).
If subscribing to RSS feeds sounds interesting to you, take a close look at your favorite sites to see if they have RSS links. The Syndic8 site features a searchable directory of over 25,000 RSS feeds - try typing a word or two of your topic of interest to see what feeds might be interesting to you. To get you jump-started, blogging software publisher UserLand hosts a list of Top 100 Most-Subscribed-To RSS Feeds.

If you're an information hound and regularly visit a number of sites looking for topics of interest, subscribing to RSS feeds may make your online experience more efficient.