April 30, 2008

RSS for Dummies

This post is for my friends who I've been nagging for months, but still don't want to figure out RSS or Atom feeds. It's about what, precisely, they are and how to use them to browse the Internet, not how to write them or incorporate them into your website.

Most of the websites which you visit have content that changes. Every blog, webcomic, newsite, photosharing site, Youtube variant, or MySpace clone that you visit as content which changes on a regular basis, and you visit each of these websites on a regular basis to keep up with that content. You visit each of them in sequence, waiting for them to load, to see if they have anything new. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Sometimes your friend's blog has a new post, sometimes it doesn't, but you don't know until you've checked. You have to check every single site you patronize and if that's a lot of sites, you could spend a lot of time browsing the Internet, hours even. It can eat into you life. It's even worse if you have a slow connection and each page you visit takes a long time to load. It's simply not an efficient way to get things done.

What would be nice, is if you could have a program that would check each of your favorite websites for you, and tell if they've updated or not. Or, even better, download the changes for you so that you don't have to. Well, if something seems like it would be a good idea, chances are someone has already invented it, and this is no exception. RSS and Atom feeds are a very simple means of accomplishing this, and they are widely used.

The way RSS works is this: It is a little bit of code, usually saved in its own file on a website which specifies all of the websites's recent changes. It contains a list of the changes, plus, usually, the content of that change. Each of a newsite's recent articles are often listed in an RSS file and often the articles themselves are saved there as well. The website maintainer is responsible for keeping the RSS file, called a feed, up to date, but this is usually done for him with whatever program he uses to maintain the site.

A program, called an aggregator, can now check the website for updates, by simply looking for changes to the feed. If there are changes, it can then download them and notify the user. All that is needed to get it to do this is to be provided with the URL of the feed.

Most websites which use feeds have a little link or buttons on the front page which shows you this.

You simply right click on the button or link, select 'copy link,' and paste it into your aggregator.

In addition, some browsers, such as Mozilla Firefox, can tell if a website has a feed attached to it and it will tell you with an icon in the address bar:

Of course, in order to do this, you will need an aggregator. Fortunately, there are many options. The easiest is just to use an online service such as, Bloglines, Google Reader, Live.com, or Yahoo. You simply sign up, enter the feeds you want, and instead of having to visit multiple websites, now you will only need to visit one. The advantage of an online reader, is that is works no matter what machine you connect from, it will always be available. Also, it will update whle your computer is unpowered, so it will always be up to date, even if you've just turned on your machine.

There is also the option of using an aggregator installed on your own machine. popular aggregators include:
NewzCrawler - RSS News Feed Reader
FeedDemon - RSS News Feed Reader
Omea Reader - RSS News Feed Reader
You can also work is in with your browser with browser extensions.

Using an aggregator to read RSS feeds on can save you hours on the Internet. Considering that it only takes a few minutes to set one up, it is well worth your time to use one.

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