What is RSS?
RSS is an Internet protocol — a standardized way to publish frequently updated content to the Web. RSS makes it easy for originators to make their content quickly and broadly available. Many devices, including tablets, smartphones and PCs can easily access this content. RSS is short for "Really Simple Syndication", but don't worry about that phrase. It's just a dumb name for a beautiful idea.
News articles, blog posts, update notices, sports stories, product and software reviews, etc. are all delivered via RSS. That's just a few examples of the vast buffet of RSS content available today. RSS can deliver webpages, audio and video. Most RSS content can be accessed anonymously by any interested person (a few sites require passwords).
RSS "feeds" are what make RSS content available (there are also Atom feeds, which are much the same). Feeds are generated automatically by the blogs, news sources, online publications, etc., that offer feeds. The feed itself can contain just a title with a link to the full content, an excerpt of the content along with the link, or the full entry.
RSS lets publishers distribute their content quickly and automatically. Feed content is available in a standardized format that makes it easy for users to access. RSS feeds give them a quick, easy way to keep up with news and emerging information that's important to them.
To see a live example click this link to the feed for Gizmo's Freeware: Top selections. This particular feed is a hand-compiled selection of the most interesting new content on the Gizmo site, but most RSS feeds including our own Hot Finds and Tech Tips feeds are generated automatically.
Why use RSS?
You probably have several - or many - favorite blogs and websites that you like to keep up on. Some of them may offer email newsletters while others don't. You probably don't like having your inbox cluttered with lots of newsletters, though, and it is a chore to visit each blog and website regularly and scan the site just to see if there is something new there.
RSS feeds offer a better way to access the new and changing content you want to see. You subscribe to RSS feeds somewhat like you would subscribe to email newsletters, but there are big differences:
- Subscribing to RSS feeds and un-subscribing is instantaneous, anonymous, and completely under your own control.
- You never submit your email address. In fact, you don't actually subscribe to feeds. You give your RSS client the web address of the feeds you want to "follow." It simply polls the feeds at regular intervals and retrieves any new content.
- RSS readers aggregate the content from all the RSS feeds you follow, and organize it in one place for quick and easy digestion.
- There is little or no spam, and there are no spam filters to fight.
- Nobody knows or cares which entries you read. There is no obligation to read or respond to any particular item.
- RSS is efficient: You can quickly scan a large number of RSS feeds, reading just the items that hold real interest for you.
How does RSS work?
RSS is written in the Internet coding language known as XML (eXtensible Markup Language), a widely used standard for information exchange on the Internet. If a website or blog offers an RSS feed, the site software organizes the RSS feed content and makes it available for polling. Your RSS reader polls all the RSS feeds you want to follow for new content. It's much like downloading email, except that you do not need an account to access the feed (a few feeds do require passwords though).
Example: FeedDemon is a widely used RSS feed reader, and my screenshot below indicates what you'd see in FeedDemon if you subscribe to a large number of RSS feeds. Notice that the "Google Alerts - adot loop 303" feed is open there. That feed is from my perpetual Google News search for "adot loop 303" (without the quotes). Notice that there are two unread entries and one expanded entry in the feed. The open one shows an excerpt and a link to the full Pebble Creek HOA announcement.
There are five other subscriptions in the "Morning Coffee" folder, and it's a simple matter to click on them in turn, scan the headlines, and read the items of interest. Each one of the other folders also contains subscriptions. Clicking a folder itself displays the unread entries for all the subscriptions in the folder. Alternatively, if the folder is open, individual subscriptions can be scanned one at a time. You can see that there are 63 unread entries in the cosmos folder. I'll probably read a dozen or so of them when I scan that folder. But if I chose, I could just mark the entire folder read and move on.
Where do you find RSS feeds?
Many big websites offer RSS feeds, particularly news and technical websites. Google publishes feeds as part of many of their services; for example, you can get an RSS feed of new items for any search you make in Google News. Thousands upon thousands of bloggers, podcasters, and videocasters publish RSS feeds to get their content out to readers, listeners, and viewers.
You'll often find one or more of these icons or badges at a website that offers RSS feeds. You can "subscribe" to as many or as few of them as you want. The large orange icon is the universal RSS indicator (it's often shown much smaller). Clicking one of the other badges will add a subscription to Google Reader, NewsGator, NetVibes, etc. (if you have an online account for the one you click).
Sometimes the only RSS feed indication comes from hidden auto-discovery markers that browsers look for. If there is one, the browser gives an indication that one or more feeds exist. You subscribe to those hidden feeds directly from your browser when its RSS icon lights up. I've written a short "How-to" detailing how to set up Firefox to discover feeds as an example.
How do you read RSS feeds?
If you only want to subscribe to a few RSS feeds you can read them directly in all major browsers. There are also simple browser add-ons that make it more convenient to manage RSS subscriptions and read the entries. Something like a dozen feeds is the practical limit for simple extensions, though. At that point, a separate feed reader, or a more capable browser add-on becomes more practical.
There are also several good web-apps for accessing and reading RSS feeds online. Feedly and Inoreader are prime examples.
Hundreds of feed readers are available - many of them free. Apparently, it's easy to write a feed reader — the RSS protocol is very simple, and many hackers try their hand at it. But there are only a few good, well-maintained readers to choose from. I've used or tried many different RSS browser add-ons, web-apps and readers. Most of them have one or two really nice features but are flawed in other areas. See my conclusions in Best Free RSS Reader-Aggregator, which describes and lists good RSS readers of all kinds.
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