Geek Basics: RSS

“RSS” stands for “Really Simple Syndication”. RSS is a way for websites to “push” data out to their readers. The idea behind RSS is similar in concept to “email updates” you may choose to get from cnn.com or some other site. However, RSS works very differently under the hood. Whereas email updates can only be sent to a single email address, RSS has lots of nifty tricks that make it much more useful than a “CNN Headlines” email.

To understand how RSS works, you need to know that it all begins with a piece of software called an “RSS reader” or “RSS aggregator” (or just “aggregator” for short). In most cases, you’d need to download an RSS reader and install it on your system. Then you enter the names of the RSS feeds you want to subscribe to into the RSS reader. The software will then begin checking a specially formatted page on the website in question. The reader checks that page at a timed interval (usually 1 hour). Any new entries are then copied into your reader software, where you can read them at your leisure.

To put it in simple terms… Have you ever sat at a web page and constantly reloaded it? Maybe you were at ticketmaster.com waiting for concert tickets to go on sale… Maybe you were at fandango.com waiting for Star Wars tickets to go on sale… Maybe you were waiting for a news item to appear on your local TV station’s website… Whatever the case, you were at a site, refreshing the page every 30 seconds or so, waiting for new entires to appear. That’s exactly what an RSS reader does, only it does it automatically, behind the scenes, once an hour (or sooner, if you set that option). The web page that the RSS reader is loading is specially formatted, and when the reader finds a new entry, it copies it to your computer so that you can read it.

Here’s where RSS gets interesting.

First of all, there are several ways to get feeds. If you’d prefer using a standalone program to read feeds, you can download a free program like RSS Bandit or SharpReader. If you’re a big user of Microsoft Outlook, you can upgrade to Office 2007 (which has an integrated RSS reader), or you can install NewsGator, a free plug-in for Outlook 2000\2003 that integrates feeds into Outlook. If you use lots of different computers during the day, you might want to look in to online RSS readers like Google Reader; instead of downloading new feeds to your desktop computer, Google Reader downloads then to your Google Account, so you can check the feeds from multiple computers – just like web mail.

If you’d like to just “dip your feet” into the RSS waters (or if you cannot install software on your computer at work), you might want to look in to using the RSS readers that are integrated into Internet Explorer 7 or Firefox 2.0. Internet Explorer 7 has a “Feeds” folder in your “Favorites” – you just need to click the feed you want to read an IE will load its “feed page”. Firefox has something called “Live Bookmarks”; once you’ve subscribed to a feed, Firefox will display a special icon in your favorites. Just hover your mouse over the feed you’re interested in, and Firefox will show you all the available posts, which you can then click to view in your web browser. To be perfectly honest, I find using RSS feeds in IE or Firefox to be a subpar experience, but since you don’t have to install anything extra to try it, it’s good for beginners.

“But wait – there’s more!” Most “web portals” these days accept RSS feeds in addition to (or instead of) the “modules” they used to use. For example, My Yahoo! allows users to add any RSS feed to their My Yahoo! pages with a few clicks of a mouse. MSN and Google are the same way. So if you’ve been using a portal page all these years, you can easily add RSS feeds to it if you like.

At this point, you know that RSS feeds allow you to get “email-like” updates from websites. You also know that you need special software, called an RSS reader, to view the feeds. You also know that many web portals allow you to imbed RSS feeds into your customized home page. But what are the specific advantages that RSS has over email?

Flexibility: As noted, you can receive RSS feeds in standalone programs, plug-ins for older versions of Outlook, integrated into new versions of Outlook and Thunderbird or via online readers like Google Reader. You can even embed them into most “web portal” pages like My Yahoo! or use the RSS readers embedded into Internet Explorer or Firefox.

Privacy: You don’t have to give most websites any personal information to subscribe to their RSS feed. It’s simply a specially-formatted webpage that the reader checks on a regular basis.

Control: Since RSS readers simply check a site’s feed page, if you decide that you no longer want to subscribe to a feed, you can just delete it, and your reader will stop checking the page. It’s that simple. If you’ve ever tried unsubscribing to an email list, only to find that the “unsubscribe” fuction doesn’t work, you’ll really appreciate this feature.

Content: RSS is supported by every major website, and most blogging software like WordPress. This means that even small sites (like this one) can offer feeds for their readers. Creating and maintaining an email mailing list is a time consuming hassle. WordPress automatically generates an RSS feed, and also updates it automatically whenever I post content. So you’ll find a much greater selection of RSS feeds than you will email updates.

Multimedia: RSS allows sites to attach content to their feeds. In most cases, that content will be audio files (podcasts) or video files (video podcasts). There’s an entire world of content out there just waiting to be delivered to your RSS reader: podcasts of local (or non-local) commercial radio shows, professionally made podcasts about any number of topics, semi-professional podcasts about the same, video blogs and much, much more.

If you haven’t played around with RSS feeds, you should check it out! It’ll save you time and open an entire world of content!

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