The thrust of the two polls I’ve been running over the last few weeks has been to try and subtly feel out whether a simplified intro to the sometimes unintuitive realm of RSS would be useful. It’s hard to say for sure from the polls, but I gathered that there were enough people who either didn’t know about it or didn’t care to try and learn that it might at least be of some value to a couple of people. So here goes.
Part I: What is RSS?
RSS stands for “Really Simply Syndication.” Yes, it’s kind of a stupid acronym. Then again, most acronyms in the computer industry are pretty stupid. But ignoring what the letters stand for, what RSS really covers is a series of related technologies that allow the content of a site to be broadcast in a way that can be easily read and reformatted by other entities.
The technical mumbo jumbo isn’t really important, what is important is that RSS allows any site that has a Feed—which is a little broadcastable file that contains the content of a site—to interact with a Feed Reader. A Feed Reader can be one of many different things: A small snippet of code attached to something else like another website (see my Netflix and Last.fm lists in the right hand column of ironSoap.org for examples) or an email program or it can be a standalone application that does nothing else but read Feeds.
You will note that most people use RSS the way they use the phrase Kleenex: What they mean is any of several technologies, products and services that work to create, detect, read and deliver Feeds. RSS itself is just one type of Feed, specifically a specification for a Feed format. There are a couple of different versions of the RSS specification as well so you might see something like RSS 2.0 or RSS 1. Another common specification for Feeds is Atom. Generally speaking they are interchangeable and most Feed Readers treat them equally; their only differences lie in the nitty-griity technical details that you don’t need to bother with.
Part II: Why Should I Care About RSS?
RSS is cool, and I can prove it. How many web sites do you visit? 5? 20? 500? 2,000? Let’s say you’re a fairly typical casual web surfer and you check out 25 sites on a semi-regular basis. Some you check maybe once a week or less because they don’t update that much. Others update really sporadically but sometimes there will be a lot of new stuff in a short span of time (like, say, ironSoap.org). A few update all the time (daily) but at different times during the day and one or two update many times per day, every day.
How long does it take you to check 25 sites like that? If you went through all 25 and read the latest stuff, it could take you hours. What if there was a way to check only the sites that had new content? Maybe you could cut the time in half since only maybe 10 of the sites update regularly anyway. What if you could preview the new updates before you ever even went to the site? If several of the sites weren’t devoted to a particular topic and you didn’t always like what they posted, maybe you could save yourself another hour of wasted time.
This is why you should care about RSS: Because surfing the Web is fun but it is also a huge time sink. Anything that lets you surf without wasting time is a very Good Thing. RSS lets you know when the sites you like have something new to read. It lets you preview the new content and decide if you want to go ahead and visit the site. Some RSS Feeds and/or Feed Readers let you view the entire content without having to actually load the site. Mostly RSS gives you the chance to avoid wasting time checking on or loading sites that don’t have anything to say that you haven’t already heard.
Part III: How Do I Get Started?
The first thing you’ll need is a few Feeds. If you use a modern browser like Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer 7 (which is still in Beta mode, by the way), there is typically a notification method whenever you visit a site that offers a Feed. In Firefox it looks something like this: An orange square with a “broadcasting” dot. The Safari icon is simply a blue rectangle with the letters RSS. IE7 is reported to use the Firefox icon, but I can’t be sure because IE7 Beta requires XP Service Pack 2 and I only have SP1. (It looks from this Microsoft article that the IE7 icon is a minor variation on the Firefox broadcasting dot icon.)
If you’re still using IE6, you may need to do a little looking. There are plugins available for IE (such as Pluck) which allow it to mimic the features of Firefox and Safari, but it doesn’t hurt to be able to locate RSS feeds on your own.
The easiest way to do this is to look for an RSS icon on a site. Most sites use either an icon that looks like the Firefox RSS icon or an orange XML button. Before you start getting confused, you can safely assume that in this case XML is completely synonymous with RSS; in fact RSS is a specific type of XML if you want to be technical. Usually clicking these icons will either bring you to a page that lists the various different Feeds the site offers or they will open the feed itself.
Looking at a Feed in a Web Browser that doesn’t actively support Feeds (like IE6) will result in something that looks like some sort of bizarre code. That’s okay, you don’t need to worry about what’s in the Feed, you just need to know how to get there. If you do see something like the code, you’ve located the Feed so now you just want the Feed’s address. The address is the same as a site address (http://www.somesite.com/somefile…); this is what you’ll want to provide to your Feed Reader so it knows where to go look for the updates to the Feeds.
Other sites use a variety of different methods of describing their Feeds: They may have a variety of different icons, logos, textual links or in some cases, no indication at all that they offer Feeds. We’ll deal with those particularly insidious sites in a moment, but in the meantime the best thing to do is search over a site (especially in the fine print areas since Feeds are typically considered to be extraneous once you’re actually on the site) and see if you can find something that looks like it has something to do with RSS, Atom, XML, Syndication or Feeds. If you can locate the Feed and copy it’s address, you’re halfway there. If you can’t find it, your best bet is probably to email the site’s Webmaster and ask if they have a Feed and if not, what their problem is! Sites without Feeds are pretty rare these days, especially if the site has any kind of updating content. Also keep in mind that some sites have Feeds that are only for specific parts of the site and you may need to navigate to those sections before you can find any Feed links.
Part IV: So, Uh, What Do I Do With This Silly Feed Address?
So you have a Feed. You’re halfway there! Of course, having a Feed address is pretty useless unless you can provide it to a Feed Reader and have that do the heavy lifting for you. That’s what this is all about anyway, having software check your favorite sites for you.
Feed Readers these days are a dime a dozen. We’ll take a look at just three, but the basics will be regardless of which program you decide to go with. The three we’ll check out are Thunderbird (it is to Outlook Express what Firefox is to Internet Explorer and made by the same people), Firefox and RSS Bandit. This should show the three most common types of Feed Readers: Email client-style, browser-style and standalone.
Thunderbird looks a lot like the familiar Outlook Express. For our purposes we’ll want to Create A New Account in Thunderbird. When the Account Wizard comes up, select “RSS News & Blogs” and click Next. Name the account and click Next again, then click Finish. Now there should be a new item in your left hand pane that looks somewhat like a new Mailbox. If you right-click on the new account name and choose Manage Subscriptions… from the menu, a RSS Subscriptions box will appear. From here, click Add and when it asks for the Feed URL, paste in the Feed address you found from your favorite site (see Part III). Once you click OK, Thunderbird will verify the Feed and load the most recent content. If you close the RSS Subscriptions box and go back to your new RSS News & Blogs account, you should see a new item under there for the site you just added. It should have a number after the name in parentheses.
You should get used to seeing this parenthetical number when dealing with Feeds: They represent the number of new articles/entries for the site since the last time you checked on the Feed. In this case the Feed is new so you’ll see a fairly high number. If you open that site’s entry you should see the site updates listed like new emails. As you click through them, the headlines (subjects) will un-bold just like a read email and the content of the update will appear in the lower pane. Once you read or click on all the articles you should see the parenthetical number disappear. Next time the site updates and you check your Thunderbird, you will see a new (1) after the site name, indicating that there is new content for you to read. Sweet!
RSS Bandit is kind of like an email program, too, except that it is strictly dedicated to Feeds. RSS Bandit comes with some feeds pre-installed. You can click through and see RSS Bandit check the status of these feeds and return the most recent updates to those sites. To add your own feed (that you located and carefully copied the address for in Part III), click the New… button in the upper left. The Add Subscription Wizard will appear and you can click Next. The Wizard then asks you for a URL (address) for a feed. But that’s way too easy… you could just paste the address you have.
Instead let’s try Auto Discovery. Check the Autodiscover and Verifty Feed box (if it isn’t already) and instead of pasting in the Feed you found (you can do that later), type in http://puckupdate.com/. PuckUpdate is a pretty cool hockey blog which up until recently didn’t have a clear way to locate the site Feed. Now hit Next. RSS Bandit does what a lot of the newer and more feature-rich Feed Readers does which is search an entire site for Feeds for you. After a progress bar indicating that the search is underway RSS Bandit will locate PuckUpdate’s Feed and ask you if you want to change the title or re-categorize the Feed. Click Next when you’re done and you’ll be presented with a login option.
Some advanced Feeds for sites with subscription content have enabled login routines to access their Feeds. This allows them to offer Feeds of their premium content without having to let non-subscribers read their for-pay stuff. In this case the PuckUpdate Feed (like most) is free, so you can click Next. RSS Bandit has several advanced features specific to the fact that it is dedicated to delivering Feed content. You can safely ignore most of the next screen but you may want to note the “Update frequency” option.
Feed Readers work by periodically checking on the status of the Feed(s) they are subscribed to. They can compare the copy they have most recently accessed to the version currently resting on the server and that’s how they determine if the site has been updated or not. You could set the update frequency to something very small like one minute. But that’s sort of like loading a web page and hitting the Refresh button on your browser once per minute. If enough people did this the site would probably crash! Most Feed Readers default to about once per hour, which is fairly reasonable. But you can customize this based on the site itself. For example, Slashdot.org updates probably three times per hour. If you wanted to know fairly soon after an update hit that site, you might change the update frequency to 15 minutes. On the other hand, a site that updates weekly (but irregularly) might be set to check in once every 24 hours. And of course you can always change the update frequency after the fact.
The next screen talks about formatters: One of the key features of newer Feeds is that they contain much or all of the content of the site updates. This means that technically, you never have to visit the site in question in person; you just get the information/content and read it in your Feed Reader. Because of this you could also re-format that content however you want. In this case we won’t bother, so just click Next and then click Finish.
Now if you check under the Blogs folder in the Feeds pane on the main RSS Bandit window, you’ll see PuckUpdate listed there with all the latest hockey news. Aren’t you lucky?
So now you know how to successfully add a regular Feed to a Reader, you can do autodiscovery… what else is there?
Well if you use a browser like Firefox you can get “smart” bookmarks that will give you quick and easy links to new content on your favorite bookmarked sites. Of course, it accomplishes this through Feeds. In Firefox it couldn’t be easier: When you browse to a site that offers a Feed, the icon will appear in the right side of the Address Bar. If you click that icon, you’ll get an Add Live Bookmark dialog box. The Feed address is already filled in for you, all you need to do is give it a name and choose a location. If you choose Bookmarks Toolbar Folder the bookmark along with the Feed icon will appear below the Address Bar; clicking the title will show a dropdown list of recent article headlines and clicking one will bring you to the content in question.
If you need to know what the Feed address is for that particular Live Bookmark, right-click the bookmark and choose Properties… and the address is found under Feed Location. You can copy this and paste it into RSS Bandit, Thunderbird or any other Feed Reader that happens to strike your fancy.
Part V: Now What?
At this point you should be able to locate and use basic Feeds. Of course there is a lot more you can do from there, including adding Feeds to your own site or using Feeds on sites you may have set as your home page (like Netvibes or My Yahoo!). There are also sites like Feedburner that act as a buffer between Feeds and the sites they represent in order to provide site owners with detailed statistics about who is using their Feeds and how. Most of this is comparatively advanced but once you get comfortable with the idea of Feeds in general, you may never use the Web the same way again.
Questions, comments or requests for clarification are welcome. Please leave a comment or email the author.