What the Heck is RSS?

Posted on Tuesday 16 October 2007

I was helping my daughter design her blog the other day and recommended that she put up an RSS feed for people to subscribe to. Both her and her girlfriend looked at me like I had two heads!

Yeah, I know that I get carried away with “geek-speak”, but hey they are both in their twenties and quite comfortable with modern technology and the web. I was amazed that they didn’t know what it was! This my attempt to simplify and hopefully explain it in such a way that it will make sense to them and everyone else.

First things first, what do the initials RSS (which I am using throughout this article) stand for? The most accepted answer is “Really Simple Syndication” and it is actually a family of different products…

It has been around since about 1995 and is now exploding on the internet. The main reason that RSS is growing so fast is that you get timely information that “you” choose, without having to divulge any personal information (including your email address) or having to create yet another account and remember yet another password… and no spam

How does it work? As a friend of mine says, “It works real good…”

I am assuming that most people have probably seen CNN or any of the other cable news or weather channels that are out there at least once. Remember that little bar (usually at the bottom) that has little news items scrolling across the screen. This is what is called a ticker tape (originally coming from the old stock market tape seen in old movies or cartoons and used as streamers in New York – for the Ticker Tape Parades.) Well for most people that is what RSS looks like on their computer…

When you are watching the TV and seeing these headlines scrolling across the screen, are there not times when you would have liked to know more than the few words mentioned? Well that is what RSS lets you do!

For example on my RSS “reader” when I see an articles title scroll across the screen I put my cursor on it and the scrolling stops and the first sentence related to that title appears. If I want to actually read the whole item I just click on the title that my cursor is resting on and the entire article opens up in my web browser for reading. If I’m not interested in what it offers I can just delete it by marking it as read.

These scrolling titles will repeatedly scroll across my screen until I decide to either read the article or mark it or that particular “feed” (all articles that you just received from that one provider or source) as being read.

To be able to get and read an RSS feed you need 3 essential pieces in this order:

  1. An internet connection;
  2. An RSS reader (tracks and creates your listing of articles);
  3. An RSS feed, source or publisher (this is where you get your articles from).

1 – The Internet connection is of course important and assumed already available if you are reading this article. RSS works with any type of connection, whether you connect once in a while or are constantly connected. High-speed or slow – it really doesn’t matter. However being constantly connected means that as an article is published you will usually see it sooner and quicker. Either way works.

2 – An RSS reader is without a doubt, for most people, the hardest part. The reason being there are hundreds (if not thousands) to choose from! They range from stand alone, to being integrated with your email client (what you read your email with) or web browser (what you are reading this article with), to personal online web accounts. All are dedicated to managing your requested RSS articles as they are published.

There are way too many readers to review in this article. Usually they fit into one or the other of two categories (although I’m sure there are a few that blend them both.)

  1. The first (my preference) is the ticker tape type of reader where you get only the title and can read further or dismiss it as you wish.
  2. The other is more like an email subscription. You receive the entire article in an “in-box” or listing that you can then review.

If you are looking for an RSS reader and would like to know what’s out there, I would recommend the following websites as a good starting point:

  • Firefox RSS Ticker (what I use for my Firefox web browser)
  • Other Firefox RSS readers (there are a lot to choose from);
  • Thunderbird’s RSS (Mozilla’s RSS email solution);
  • Internet Explorer (Microsoft’s RSS reader recommendations);
  • Microsoft Outlook (Microsoft’s RSS email recommendation);
  • AOL is even starting to get into the RSS reader act (Still beta as of this writing);
  • TechCrunch does a great job of covering online solutions. Instead of installing software, you can use an online RSS reader solution instead;
  • Stand Alone Solutions (way too many to list – but here’s some sites with more info):
    • BlogSpace – includes solutions for Mac’s, Linux and Windows;
    • AllRSS – includes solutions for PocketPC, iPhone, Blackberry and others;
    • LeslieFrank – covers the RSS solutions available for the Palm;

3 – So once you have decided on what type and style of RSS reader to use, the next thing to look for is an RSS feed. The easiest way to identify an RSS feed is to look for the “official icon”. You can find it either within the web page that you are visiting or the web address line within your browser (once you are actually at the website in question.) The logo itself should look something like this…

48px-feed-icon.png

That is what the official RSS logo looks like, unfortunately many websites have chosen to change the size, color, shape and even perspective of the icon. Another good way to identify feed is to look for a link (usually a menu item) with the words RSS or RSS feed.

Both the icon and/or the word has a link which allows your RSS reader to subscribe to the feed(s) available off that website. If you are subscribing to a blog, such as mine. You will be sent an update whenever an article is added. In the case of a very busy site, such as CBC, CNN, Ziff-Davis or any other major news source you will be given an option to choose which categories you would like to subscribe to. Be picky because there is a lot of information out there!

If you really don’t know what you want, there are siteswhich let you research the 100’s of thousands of feeds that are available. Just Google “RSS Feeds”. You’ll find over 300 million hits! But are a few good sites to start your research with:

Lastly, if you want to know more about RSS, it’s history, where it’s going and pretty well anything else there is to know about it, then I highly recommend blogspace.com’s RSS archives. They have a lot of really good information and cover just about every aspect of RSS.

End Article
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