Author: Sam Roberts
What is an RSS feed?
RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication (although versions before RSS 2.0 have been known by other names). In simple terms, an RSS feed is a system that allows web content to be put into a standard format for viewing through an RSS feed reader. It allows the user to save time and effort by viewing recent content from many different websites, without having to visit the sites in question.
How do I subscribe to a feed?
Now that you know about a bit about what you’re getting into, the first thing you need to do is find a feed to subscribe to. All the major news sites have these now, as do many other websites that are updated on a regular basis. They will often be marked with an orange badge, to make them easy to locate on busy web pages.
If you click on the feed icon, you’ll probably just get a page full of code, and it won’t make all that much sense. RSS feeds are simply xml web pages, designed to be read by computers rather than people. In order to make use of a feed, you need to subscribe to it, and to do that, you need to get the URL into your feed reader.
Browser-based feed readers
There are two kinds of feed reader; browser-based or dedicated software readers. The most basic of these are built into a number of common web browsers. Opera, Firefox and Safari all check for feeds automatically when you open a page, and display an icon if they find one.
Clicking this icon gives you the opportunity to save the feed as a bookmark, after which it will act as a folder, updating regularly to display the most up-to-date content from that feed.
There are other browser-based readers available, such as Google’s Reader. This is a web page, specially designed to store your RSS feeds. When you log in at http://www.google.com/reader you are presented with different options for subscribing to feeds:
• You can search the web for interesting RSS feeds using the ‘Search for new content’ button.
• You can enter the URL of a feed directly, or the URL of the web page where the feed lives.
• You can import subscriptions from other feed readers, or export your Google subscriptions as an OPML file.
Once you have subscribed to a feed, it shows up in your reading list in the left hand column, displaying the most recent entry for that feed. If you click on it, it opens up in the viewer on the right, so that you can read the full entry. From there, you can click the feed title to view a list of other recent headlines.
In addition to Google Reader, a number of other online RSS readers exist, such as YourLiveWire, and there are search engines such as Feedster, which cater especially for RSS feeds.
Dedicated feed reader software
There are literally hundreds of different RSS feed readers for both Mac OS X and Windows XP, and most of them are relatively similar, so you should have no trouble working out how to subscribe to any RSS feeds you come across while trawling the web. For my example I am using RSS Owl, because it’s open source and cross platform, so my instructions can be followed regardless of your operating system.
As with browser-based feed readers, to subscribe to a feed using a dedicated feed reader you need to get its URL into the program. RSS Owl lets you do this in one of three ways:
• By dragging the Feed link or icon to the Favorites Tray
• By clicking on the ‘New’ button and selecting ‘Favorite…’ from the menu
• By importing subscriptions from an OPML file
If you follow either of the first two methods you are presented with the ‘Add Favorite’ dialogue box. There are spaces for you to fill in the feed URL, title and the category in which you wish the feed to go. You can also add your own categories if you don’t like the ones that come with the program.
RSS Owl allows you to choose how often you would like the feed to be updated (i.e. how often you would like the program to check the feed URL for new data), and whether you want the feed to open on start-up.
Conclusion RSS feeds are an invaluable timesaving resource. They don’t take long to set up, and once they’re up and running you can literally save hours every day. It’s difficult to understand how much easier things become when you can see at the click of a button which of your websites have been updated and with what – you can even leave your feed reader on in the background so that you are instantly alerted, the moment something important happens. You’e never out of the loop! And with browser-based feed readers, you don’t even have to be at your own computer. You can stay up-to-date wherever you are in the world. Give RSS feeds a try; you’ll wonder how you ever managed without them!
About the Author:
Sam Roberts is an experienced advertising and SEO copywriter. He was a technical advisor and research assistant at the Guildhall School of Music in London, before leaving to co-found Herds of Words. He can be contacted at sam[at]herdsofwords.co.uk.
Or come join the herd at http://www.herdsofwords.co.uk.