How to Make the Most of RSS Feeds (Redux)

RSS Feed IconRSS feeds are everywhere now, and for a good reason! It can be a really powerful tool for those who want to stay savvy, but don’t have much time to browse all of their favorite sites (yeah, I just described the entire population of Earth there).

Here’s an overview of what RSS is, how you can use it to save your precious time and also some additional nifty tricks I frequently use (top secret stuff).

I originally wrote an article by this title in 2006, but re-reading it now, after having improved my writing style somewhat since then, I felt it was horrible. So I decided to do this Redux.

What is RSS?

I’ve met many that have no idea what RSS feeds are, or at least limited understanding of what you can do with them. The basic idea is to make it easy for computers to understand and transmit a chunk of data (like contents of a blog entry). Think of it as the simplification of complex webpages to flesh out the content.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds, or just feeds, make it possible to get your favorite websites delivered directly to you when they’re updated. You subscribe to a certain website’s feed through a program on your own computer (or on the web) that can read feeds, aptly named Feed Readers (see more on readers below).

Note that this isn’t a kind of subcription that you have to give your email, name, adress and phonenumber — the sites you subscribe to don’t know anything about you. Once you’ve got a Reader application at home, subscribing can be as simple as clicking “Subscribe” on a blog!

Multiple websites delivered to a computer via RSS

The reason they exist is that somebody smart thought that instead of having to visit all of his favorite blogs or sites, it would be awesome if he could simply get it delivered directly to him. Sort of like e-mail. But there was a problem: A typical webpage is composed of hundreds of different items, such as images, image captions, tables, menus, banners and ads. Moreover, each webpage uses these items differently and in different places!

Computer is confused over the complexity of a webpage

In order to make a program that could check a website and deliver the recent items to you in one neat and easily read package, the program would have to know which of these items to include in the ‘package’. That’s where RSS comes in!

It’s simply a standard format that, basically, tags content that should be included in the delivery package. Once webpage content has been put in this format, it just becomes a matter of making programs that read the tags, deliver the content to you and display it!

Computer extracts content from a webpage via RSS

Sweet! So how do I use it?

There are two basic ways to read RSS feeds:

  1. Use an online service, such as Google Reader or Bloglines (both are free)
  2. Use a desktop application such as NetNewsWire Lite for Mac or Omea Reader for Windows (both are free)

The feed reader is your base of operations. It’s the program that receives and displays updates from sites you subscribe to. Many prefer an online feed reader, I’ve tried them and they’re fine, but I use a desktop app mainly because I use my laptop alot and don’t need to access my feeds from many computers.

Aaaanyway. I’m going to take an example of how to add and view a subscription using my own desktop application. Note that most feed reading applications have a very similar layout and function, so even if you don’t have my application this should help you getting started with any reader.

First, you need to go to a website that offers an RSS feed (basically all sites do nowadays). On that site, find the feed link — it is usually marked with an orange symbol such the symbol at the top of this article. Now, copy the link. (If you’re actually doing this while reading, feel free to use this Think Artificial feed link to test on).

Next, we need to add that subscription to our feed reader application. Here’s a screenshot of my current feed reader (NetNewsWire):

A typical RSS Feed Reader application window

Right there in the upper left corner is a “Subscribe” button. When pushed, a dialog appears and asks you to insert the feed link. Simply paste the link into the textbox and click subscribe.

Subscription dialog

Voila! You’ve subscribed to the feed and will now always be able to check the latest updates through your RSS reader (it should now appear in the left column list). And of course, while the app’s open, any updates on the sites you’re subscribed to will pop up in your list. Now you just have to repeat the process for all your other favorite sites! Some (or most) desktop apps even have a way of setting themselves as default reader applications, so that when you click a “Subscribe” button on a blog your reader automatically launches and subscribes to it. That can be handy for avoiding tedious copy-pasting frenzies.

Here’s an example of how the feed and entry appears in the reader for viewing:

Think Artificial blog entry showing in a feed reader

The left column displays my subscriptions. The right column contains two boxes; the upper box shows a list of all entries in the Think Artificial feed, the lower box shows the content of the currently selected entry! Simple as that. And the process and layout is almost exactly the same for most desktop- and online feed readers.

Make Use of Categorization!

You’ll notice that there are some folders visible on my two screenshots of the feed reader, and within that folder a list of sites. Most modern feed readers make it easy to categorize feeds (both online readers and desktop apps).

So, for example, you can subscribe to a bunch of tech-related sites and place them in a “Tech news” folder. Whenever you wanted to check out the latest news on Tech, you could simply click the Tech News folder and the feed reader would display a complete list from all the sites in that folder. Similarly, you could subscribe to feeds of your family members’ blogs and put them in a folder called “Family”.

Some Neat Time Saving Tricks

Additionally, here are a couple of nifty time-saving ideas for RSS that people often forget to mention in these kinds of tutorials:

  • Many online services like Technorati offer RSS feeds for a particular search. For example, I’m subscribed to a blogsearch for the phrase “Artificial Intelligence”, so whenever a new entry mentions that phrase in the blogosphere I get it as an item in my subscription.
  • Subscribe to a Technorati search for incoming links to your blog so you don’t have to go to Technorati to check
  • Google News offers RSS subscriptions to searches
  • EvilRSS allows you to turn regular Google searches into an RSS feed. Very useful for keywords you constantly monitor (like your site’s position in the search results).

RSS offers huge options for things like this to boost your productivity and save time. The trick is to be inventive :) Feel free to share some tricks of your own in the comments!

Conclusion

If you’re not using a Reader, I really recommend it. RSS has become like a second e-mail app to me. Bringing me (almost) instant bulletins of news, blogs and general information tidbits from around the world. On a sidenote, it’s definitely not a perfect way to get or organize news — but those thoughts could fill a whole new post and are irrelevant when compared to the benefits of RSS over regular browsing.

Now, this isn’t the only article you can find on the topic, there are some really great ones out there that cover some different aspects of RSS, like why you should care about it, or how to import multiple subscriptions from file. You should definitely check some out if you want to learn more.

To conclude, here are a few links to more information, applications and online services for RSS. Hope they bring you joy (joy is a synonym for information, if you ask me)!

Information

Online Services

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9 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. RSS really makes online life simpler. Thanks for the article. really informative

  2. this has nothing to do with rss, but
    i noticed a little happy face at the bottom left corner :)

  3. Very meticulous, thorough article! Nice job. I shall probably be referring people here when they ask what RSS is. ;)

  4. Hrafn

    @byteburn
    You’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it.

    @yang yu
    Humm. Probably the WordPress smiley.

    @Esther
    Thanks! Hope it helps someone out :)

  5. Very nice job, about the best article on RSS I’ve seen. I’ve been using Newsgator Online since they starting making a beta release available a couple of months ago. It’s still a tad rickety in some minor areas, but the user interface has the current version of Bloglines beat, and I’ve never been able to get used to Google Reader for some reason. I also now take advantage of some tricks Newsgator offers for creating a blogroll and news feeds for my blog; the two sidebars on my site now have both features. Pretty slick, really, I just added your site to my blogroll and news items on my blog by subscribing to the feed in Newsgator and clicking a checkbox … and that was all I had to do.

    Bye for now!

  6. Hrafn

    Quite honestly, I never really liked the Google interface either. I think cumbersome is an apt word for it. They should try to make it more like their new Docs interface.

    I haven’t tried the new Newsgator Online, but from what you’ve described I’ll definitely give it a go! The blogroll feature sounds great, and thanks for adding Think Artificial to it! :)

  7. This was a well done article. If it’s okay, I would like to link to it and use it with my teacher during some inservicing that I will be doing.

  8. Hrafn

    Hello Kelly.
    You’re welcome to link to it. Use of any articles here is permitted provided that proper credit is given :) Glad you find it useful!

    Edit: Just out of curiosity, what school is that?

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