30
Apr
09

What is RSS? How Do I Use RSS? A beginners guide.

I get asked alot when I’m talking to people who want to get more into consuming information on the net “what is RSS?” or “How do I Use RSS?” so I thought I’d so a quick blog post on it. RSS (an acronym for “Really Simple Sydnication”) is a great little web technology that allows you to have content from your favourite sites sent to your desktop – it removes the need for you to visit sites individually, meaning a great time saving, not to mention the reduced chance of missing out on news by forgetting to go to a certain site on a certain day. I make checking my RSS feeds a part of my morning routine because it means I start the day with all the news I need to know, without the hassle of trekking from site to site to get it – I simply open my “RSS Reader” (I’ll get to what that means), and I have all my news in front of me. Only around 11% of the online audience are using RSS, which I think is a great shame. The following is a quick introduction to RSS and how to use it.

How does RSS work?

The orange icon to the right is the RSS symbol. If you see it on a page, it usually means that an RSS feed for the page you are viewing is available – anywhere you see this icon, you should be able to ‘subscribe’ to an RSS feed. This means you can have content from the site that is displaying the RSS symbol sent directly to your RSS reader (I’ll cover what an RSS Reader is in a little bit, but for now you just need to know it is software that will allow you to read the news items that are sent to you when you start using RSS). In a way, you can think of RSS as similar to email, in that content is sent to you, you don’t have to go to the site to retrieve new content each day. To subscribe to an RSS feed, you need to do one of two things:

i) click the icon on the page itself, which should take you to the RSS feed’s homepage which will give you an option to subscribe OR

ii) click the RSS icon in your browser’s menu bar (the picture below is where the RSS icon appears in Internet Explorer 8 – in firefox 3, the symbol is in the right hand edge of the address bar)

Clicking on either of these options will take you to the RSS feed for the page, and will almost always have a link that, when you click it, will subscribe you to that particular ‘RSS feed’ using your browser.

Um, what is a RSS Feed?

‘RSS feed’ refers to the combined list of content that is sent through to you from all of the different RSS services you ‘subscribe’ to. Let’s say I subscribe to the RSS Feed of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Business Day section – ‘subscribing’ to that RSS feed means that every news article that goes onto the Business Day homepage will be sent directly to me. If I subscribe to the RSS feeds of 20 sites, my combined ‘feed’ is made up of the news content that is being sent to me from all 20 of those sites.

OK, I’ve subscribed to an RSS feed, now what is an RSS Reader?

This is the bit that confuses most people – you’ve clicked the link that says “Subscribe to This Feed” but how do you then read the content? You CAN do it by just using your browser (open your Favourites folder and select the ‘Feeds’ option) but it is much easier and more satisfying to use an ‘RSS Reader’ (also called a ‘feed reader’). The best way to think of an RSS Reader is like an email client – you know when you check your email in Outlook, or logon online to check your hotmail account? Well, an RSS reader is like Outlook or Hotmail, but instead of receiving emails, you’re receiving news items. Choosing which RSS Reader is best for you can be confusing aswell – whilst the most popular reader is Google Reader, I prefer FeedReader, as it starts up automatically when you start your computer, then automatically downloads any updates made to your RSS feeds overnight without you having to do anything. The other great thing about FeedReader is that is it is accessible when you’re offline (it is a desktop application, not a web based application like Google Reader). This means you can connect your computer to the net in the morning, download your RSS feeds for the day, then view them on your laptop when you’re on the bus / train / have a spare moment, even if you don’t have an internet connection handy.

The other great thing about FeedReader 3 is that, as it runs in the background, every time you click on the Subscribe button in Internet Explorer or Firefox, it will automatically add that RSS feed to the reader. Google reader requires you to manually update which RSS feeds you want to receive, which can be confusing for beginners. For my money, FeedReader is a better option for RSS beginners (or even intermediate users)  because it is so simple.

I’m still confused!

Let’s do a walk through on how we might subscribe to an RSS feed from a site we love. First of all, you will need to download Feedreader and have it installed, open and running (it’s completely free to install, but it is important that you make sure it is running before you subscribe, otherwise you will have to manually add RSS feeds you are subscribing to, which is annoying). The instructions I’ll be giving are based on Internet Explorer – other browsers will have almost identical steps and shouldn’t be too hard ot find.

Let’s subscribe you to Marketingisadirtyword.com to start off with (don’t worry it is easy to remove a subscription if you don’t really like my blog). The first step is to click the orange RSS logo in the menu bar at the top of the window.

You should be taken to a page that looks something like this – click the text that says “Subscribe to this feed”:

 

 You’ll then be shown the following popup window in Internet Explorer- Click the “Subscribe” button.:

 

 Then go to your open Feedreader window, and you’ll see the following dialogue box – click “Yes”:

After that, you’ll be able to view all the news articles that were added to that feed recently. The real value of RSS is found when you subscribe to a large number of feeds from other sites that you would normally have to go to one by one, and it’s easy to remove feeds from appearing in FeedReader, so don’t be afraid to subscribe to a whole bunch of RSS feeds and kill some of them off as you find them ill-suited to your interests. Below is a screenshot of all the RSS feeds I subscribe to – you can see how have all this information in one place can be helpful.

The greatest barrier to RSS adoption is that it can be confusing – if you’re still having trouble understanding RSS after this article, you’re probably not alone – you can contact me at the About Nick Ellery page if you’d like more help.

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