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RSS is a powerful information publishing and collection mechanism that bypasses email and makes it easy to stay up-to-date with a large number of websites and other RSS-enabled services.

So just what is RSS, and why should I care?

RSS, depending on who you ask, stands for either Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication. Regardless of which you adhere to, the concepts behind RSS have spawned a handful of additional buzzwords like "feed," "webfeed," and "atom feed," as well as multiple different file formats.

Great. But just what is RSS?

Put simply, it's content delivery.

RSS is a technology that allows you to get news, articles, website updates, and other content delivered directly to your computer.

It's kinda-sorta like email, but without all the spam.

It starts with a feed

In order to support RSS, websites themselves must provide what most people call a feed.

A feed is nothing more than a specially formatted data file that is updated whenever something is added to a website.

In fact, that's all RSS really is – a file on a website with a certain format that is updated when new information is added to the site.

Let's look at one.

The Ask Leo! RSS feed

You'll find an RSS Feed link for Ask Leo! on the home page, just above the footer.

RSS feed RSS

That's just a link to this file:

http://ask-leo.com/index.xml

You can click on that if you like, but depending on how your browser is configured and a few other things, the results are ... well, they are unpredictable, as they say. Benign, but unpredictable.

What the file contains is an XML formatted document that lists the first part of the most recent 15 articles published on Ask Leo!, updated each time a new article is published.

XML (eXtensible Markup Language) isn't directly readable by ordinary web browsers or email programs. So how do you use an RSS feed?

Subscribing to an RSS feed

In most cases, you subscribe to an RSS feed using special RSS reading program or service called an aggregator or feed reader.

When you then run the feed reader, it goes out and grabs a copy of the RSS file and shows you what's changed since you last looked.

That's it. It really is that simple.

The power then of having a feed reader is that you can subscribe to many different feeds from many different sources, and when any of them update, all the updates show up in your feed reader.

An example reader

I happen to use (and recommend) Google Reader, so I'll use that as my example.

Google Reader

That's an image of Google Reader. It happens to be looking at the current contents of the Ask Leo! RSS feed.

Each time a new article is published on Ask Leo!, the Ask Leo! RSS feed is updated, and after a short delay, the new article automatically appears here in Google Reader.

There are a couple of items worth pointing out. On the left, you'll see a list of feeds:

Subscriptions in Google Reader

That's a list of sites whose RSS feeds I have subscribed to. There are a variety of items there that expose the power of RSS, so let's look at each one:

  • Ask Leo! – as described above this – is a feed that is updated whenever a new article is published on Ask Leo!. This is probably the most common and basic use of RSS – tracking sites that periodically publish new articles.

  • Ask Leo! 2012 Newsletters – I also provide a separate RSS feed that contains only the Ask Leo! newsletter. This then is a way to subscribe to the newsletter without using email. You can simply find it in your RSS reader.

  • CNN.com – The "main" feed on the CNN website, news stories appear here as they are updated on the CNN site.

  • CNN.com – Technology – Many sites provide additional RSS feeds with a special focus. Much like my newsletter feed, this Technology feed from CNN includes only those news stories that are related to technology.

  • Google Alerts – corgi – Google Alerts is a service that can notify you when a new instance of a search term appears on the web. In this case, I have a Google Alert set for the word "corgi", and each time Google finds a new page or article with that word, it appears here. Google Alerts are available via email, but as you can see here, an RSS feed can be easier to manage, especially of you have many alerts set.

  • KOMO News – News – KOMO is a Seattle TV and radio station, and they make their news updates available not only on their website, but as RSS feeds as well. In fact, most news sites, national and local, typically provide some form of RSS feed.

  • Uploads by username... – The actual text includes the name of the YouTube user. The idea here is that you can subscribe to an RSS feed for a specific YouTube user, and each time they upload a new video, a new entry appears in the feed. Many services provide RSS access – another that I use myself is Flickr, which provides feeds of each user's uploads.

The other item to note is that big red Subscribe button. When you click on it, it asks for the feed URL:

Google Reader Subscribe Button

That is where you would type or paste in the URL of the RSS feed for the site that you want to subscribe to. Here, you can see I've pasted in the URL of the Ask Leo! RSS feed.

In fact, many websites have hints that feed readers like Google Reader can use, so it may also be enough to just type in the URL of the site that you want (i.e. just http://ask-leo.com), and the reader will figure out the rest.

Finally, back to the "results are unpredictable" statement earlier, depending on your browser, your browser settings, the feed reader you use, and more, it is actually often the case that simply clicking on the RSS feed link – the RSS feed RSS for example – might actually cause your browser to ask what you would like to do, and viewing in your feed reader of choice might well be one of the options.

Why RSS is useful

So websites provide feeds, which you can then view in a feed reader.

Why would you want to?

Several reasons, actually:

  • All in one place: Let's say you like to keep track of what's happening on six different blogs. Rather then visiting each six blogs to ask, "Have you published anything lately?", you instead subscribe to their RSS feeds. Then, once a day, you visit one place: your RSS reader. If anything's new, it'll appear there.

  • It's not email: Particularly for people who are overwhelmed with overflowing inboxes, RSS feeds – if provided – are often a very viable alternative to email subscriptions. Rather than cluttering up the inbox, the information appears in your feed reader, which you use on your own terms and when you want to.

  • It's not spam: You control your subscription, so if a feed ever becomes spammy or even just unintersting, you remove the subscription from your feed reader and it's gone.

  • It's not spam, part 2: Because it's a constant opt-in model, there's no need for spam filtering. That means you'll never miss an update because it was mistakenly filtered as spam.

  • It's mostly anonymous: You never provide your email address or any personal information to any site to get its RSS feed.1 As far as the site goes, it's just another anonymous user viewing a page.

  • All in one place: It really does bear repeating. The fact that your feed reader goes out and collects all of the information from any number of sites that you happen to be subscribe to and aggregates that information into a single page or user interface makes following large numbers of sites or other RSS-enabled information tremendously easier. As I write this, I actually have 182 RSS subscriptions. As with all things on the web, some sites have stopped updating, others update only occasionally, yet several update multiple times a day. It's only RSS and a feed reader that allows me to even consider staying abreast of so many different sources of information.

A word about podcasts

Podcasts are periodic publication and delivery of an audio file – typically in mp3 format.

As it turns out, podcasts are built on RSS.

A podcast is just an RSS feed where each "article" includes an attachment – somewhat like email – which is a link to the audio file.

A podcast-player, sometimes referred to as a "podcatcher," is nothing more than a special feed reader that is focussed on fetching and playing the audio attachments included in podcast RSS feeds that you subscribe to.

How do I know if a site offers RSS?

That can occasionally get confusing.

First, look for the RSS icon: RSS feed – that is usually a link to the RSS feed for the site you're visiting.

Look for terms like RSS, feed, webfeed, or atom on the site's home page.

Try just subscribing to the site's URL. It may provide those hints I mentioned earlier that will allow your feed reader to figure it out.

Try subscribing to the site's URL plus the word "feed", the standard approach for many Wordpress based blogs. For example, http://glossary.ask-leo.com/feed is the RSS feed for the Wordpress-based Ask Leo! glossary.

In some cases, site owners may not even realize that they have an RSS feed, because it is often generated automatically by many popular content management and blogging platforms.

And of course, if a site has multiple RSS feeds, search the site for information. You may find that the site has a page laying out its various RSS feeds and their purposes.

An information alternative

It may not be for everyone, but I do recommend that you look into RSS as a possible alternative to some of your email subscriptions and more. Once you get comfortable with RSS, you can look into many of the additional and powerful ways that it's being used for more than just a site's most recent blog posts.

(This is an update to an article originally published April 30, 2004.)

1: There are situations where RSS feeds are private or subscriber-only, and in these situations, you'd need to supply login or access credentials that would identify you. This is fairly rare, however.

Article C1932 - August 19, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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