First off, what is an RSS feed? I think I understand it, but I’m not sure. Also, how do I subscribe to an RSS feed and why would I want to?
This is a wonderful question, because it’s one I have heard time and again from people. So let’s have a stab at this…
RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and it’s basically a computer-readable summary of the content of a Web page. This summary might be just the headlines of the articles on the page, the headlines plus a sentence or two excerpt of the articles, or even the headlines plus the entire articles. These are known as “headline only”, “headline + excerpt” and “full text” feeds, respectively.
There are, of course, nuances, because RSS is now used for a lot more than just Web pages comprised of a set of articles (e.g., weblogs). For example, the New York Times has a set of RSS feeds that let you subscribe to just the movie reviews or just their business news.
Typically, you recognize an RSS feed because there’s a cute little orange or blue button labeled “XML”, “RDF” or “RSS”, like this:
The differences between them, and the “Atom” flavor of RSS syndication, are something that us mere mortals can ignore: if you see any of these options, or even a text link labeled “syndicate this site”, then you’re looking at an RSS-enabled Web site and/or a way to tap into the site’s RSS feed.
The real benefit of subscribing to an RSS feed from a site is that you no longer need to visit the site itself to stay up-to-date on what’s being discussed. You might be quite interested in the Q&A here at Ask Dave Taylor, but are you going to pop over to the site every day? I doubt it, especially a month from now. Subscribe to the RSS feed, though, and your RSS Reader will do all the work, showing you only what’s new since the last time you’ve checked the RSS feed. And that’s the real value of RSS: to be able to stay current with dozens or even hundreds of Web sites, quickly and efficiently.
So that’s one side of the equation: RSS feeds offer a succinct machine-readable version of a Web page, often a weblog or news wire. You can view the RSS feed information, written in a markup language called XML (which stands for eXtensible Markup Language, if you’re curious), with your Web browser (click on the “movie reviews” link to see what I mean), but it’s not going to make any sense to you or your Web browser, most likely. If you see a blank page, try using File –> View Source to see the XML source.
The other side of the equation, the program that does know how to both read and keep track of your favorite RSS feeds is called, logically enough, an RSS Reader, or an RSS Aggregator.
There are a ton of different options for RSS Readers, ranging from standalone applications to plug-ins for popular email programs like Microsoft Outlook, to plug-ins for Web browsers like Firefox. Apple’s latest Safari browser for Mac OS X Tiger includes an RSS reader too, for example.
The category of RSS reader I prefer, however, is Web-based, and of the different choices, my favorite is the free Newsgator Online. There are a number of reasons why I prefer a Web-based reader, but the main one is that I can stay up-to-date on the 140 RSS feeds I track from any Web browser, anywhere, even an Internet café or borrowed laptop. It’s also elegant, fast, simple, and easy to master.
In fact, let me step through how I add an RSS feed to NewsGator Online so you can see how you go from seeing an orange button on a page to having that RSS feed included in your RSS subscription list!
I’ll pick my friend Rajesh Setty’s “Life Beyond Code” blog, since it’s not just worth reading, it’s worth subscribing. To do that, I need to find the XML button, RSS button, RDF button, Atom button, or “Syndicate this site” link. On Rajesh’s site, it’s an orange XML button, and that button points to the URL http://blog.lifebeyondcode.com/blog/index.xml.
The easy way to grab this URL is to right-click on the orange button itself (or control-click if you’re on a Mac). You’ll see a menu of options similar to:
As shown, choose “Copy Link”. Now you have the RSS feed Web address in your copy/paste buffer. Time to flip over to NewsGator Online and add the feed to your subscription list.
Subscribe to NewsGator Online if you haven’t yet done so, then click on “Add Feeds” on the NewsGator page, and you’ll see a set of feed subscription options:
As you can see, there are a lot of ways to find cool and interesting — and professionally helpful — feeds, but for this situation, we want to just click on “URL & Import”. Now you’ll see the following:
Just about done. Click into the text input box, then choose Edit –> Paste from your browser menu. The URL from the Life Beyond Code RSS feed should appear. Now click “Add Feed” and you’re done!
To read what’s new at Life Beyond Code, intermingled with all your other RSS feed subscriptions, just click on the “newsgator online” tab, the top-middle tab in the main navigation area:
Finally, you’ll be reading all of your feeds, and it’ll look like this:
That’s basically it. Notice in this screenshot that my subscription list goes far, far down the screen. There’s no way I could keep track of half the news and weblog discussion I do without my RSS reader. Whether it’s NewsGator Online, Sage, Safari, NetNewsWire, Pluck, Bloglines or any other RSS reader, I promise that once you start using an RSS reader, you’ll never look back!
I hope you not only have a sense of why RSS feeds are so valuable but also can see how to use an RSS reader to grab a feed and add it to your subscription list: the process is remarkably similar regardless of what type of reader you’re using.