RSS is

May 1, 2008 at 12:42 pm | Posted in Blogs, Internet, Online services, Software, Web Apps | 2 Comments

To improve on what I offer here, I upgraded the subscription tool on the blog, there on the upper right of the sidebar. But you may ask what the heck “Subscribe in a Reader” means. And whats with all those little square orange wave icons you see on web sites?

This is about RSS or Real Simple Syndication. In this use, Syndication means subscribing to article distribution. The “syndicate” is the article “feeder” or source. (no, not the bad guys – thats a crime syndicate) You may see them on many sites – anywhere where information updates regularly.

The ‘Reader’ is what the Feeder feeds or sends to, hence a Feed Reader. Also called an Aggregator. Its different from email.

In an email subscription, your email address is added to a list and everyone on the list is sent the email to read in their email program. You have to deal with whatever they choose to send. This is great if you love the site and want to read everything they post. But what if its a news site like CNN? Do you want dozens or hundreds of emails a day? What if its something that changes from moment to moment like stocks? Or what about a site where you want to browse the articles and read just the ones you like? After a while, you may have quite a few sites to visit each day. Why not have the sites come to you rather than you going to them?

This is where RSS comes in. Rather than sending you the whole thing whenever it changes, RSS ‘feeds’ a list of articles with links to the content. The list changes as the articles change. Using a ‘reader’, you can subscribe to the ‘feeds’ of different sites you like. When you have a moment, you can quickly scan all of your ‘feeds’ for recent articles of interest and read the ones that interest you. Essentially what you are doing is choosing the content of your own newspaper.

A number of web sites use the same technology to feed breaking news or headlines on web pages, or let you build a personalized page like iGoogle. News, weather, astrology, stocks and so forth are all called to the page, mostly from feeds.

RSS is quite widespread because having a feed means other sites may use it, thus promoting your content. It also makes your site very timely.  But It has not been quite as popular with end users because getting your own feeds required a separate program, a Feed Reader. If you’ve been around computers awhile, a basic Reader is not unlike the old UseNet programs people used for job boards and such before it all went to the web (browser).

The options and support for RSS have dramatically improved more recently. Web browsers and some email programs now come with basic RSS readers and blogs have popularized their use.

Using RSS is 2 simple steps:

1) Choose a reader
2) Subscribe to feeds with the little orange button on web sites you like.

(If you’re a blogger, you choose a feeder service, like Feedburner to offer your readers your site feed. WordPress has a basic one included.)

1 – Readers

You have 3 kinds of readers to choose from:
1) a software program you download and install
2) a web program like webmail you use in a browser
3) a reader inside other programs like browsers and email

There are Many choices:


Programs like FeedDemon, NewsGator, and RSSOwl are popular. FeedDemon gets top marks and will sync with Bloglines (web, below). Another, BlogBridge has guides and runs on lava, making it cross-platform. RSSOwl is evidently simpler but less featured and has a Firefox plugin. Google Desktop includes Feed Reader features, like the news and weather gadgets. I’ve used a couple of different ones but found having yet another program reduced its usefulness for me. You can get fancier with a specialized tool though.

Web Reader

Like web mail, the advantage of a web reader is anywhere access. If you use something like Gmail, you’ll probably like the similar Google Reader. If you click on the upper right “Subscribe in a Reader” link on this page, you’ll see other buttons for Yahoo, the popular Bloglines, and more.

As we can expect growing integration in such tools, it may be advantageous to choose one that matches your other tools.


More recently, more and more tools are including Readers in thier programs. For example, if you use Gmail webmail, in Settings, Web Clips (their name for their reader) you can turn on the feature to show in a line above the InBox. Its a rather lame one liner but there. We can expect a Reader link will show within Gmail.

Firefox has a tool included in recent versions called “Live Bookmarks”. The RSS feed is added as a Bookmark (Favorite). Click on it and the latest posts are available to browse. (best to put RSS bookmarks in a subfolder, to browse as a group)

Firefox RSS Bookmarks

Internet Explorer 7 has a reader built in too. When the orange RSS icon lights up, you can subscribe. Browse your feeds from View, Explorer Bar, Feeds. Personally, this is less useful as you can have to go through each one rather than browsing a tree.

I’ve seen a plugin for Outlook but it downloaded feeds as email, defeating part of the idea here, in the way I use it. But that would give you an archive.

Thunderbird (email) and Opera do similar and there are plug-ins to enhance functionality. A search of Firefox addins finds 108 RSS options. They recommend Wizz for a Reader.

2 – Subscribe

After you’ve picked a program, the next step is to add your favorite sites to the feed list. For the most part, you just click the usual orange button and choose the Feeder you use.

A feed address is a little different than a web address. It points to the Feed rather than a web page. A feed is in XML, so it looks like a bunch of code. You don’t want that – you just want the address of that so the Reader can read the code for you.

WordPress feeds are typically blog.url/feed, like this:
My upgraded tool uses Feedburner, so looks like this:
Feedburner also lets me add email subscription.


If the Reader choice seem too complicated, just pick a web tool or use your browsers features to get started. You can always move to something else later.

If you want less detail, here’s a great little intro in a nutshell:

For myself, I email subscribe to a few of my favorite blogs and RSS to bigger ones or ones I like to check out occasionally. Then I can control the feed and the volume of email coming my way. I prefer tools integrated with programs I already use, like browser add-ins.

Consider RSS as like speed-reading the web. You can cover a lot more territory and keep up better. But don’t forget to have life. All of this is just For Now.



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  1. Just a little follow-up on Google Reader. Their help indicates it doesn’t work with authenticated feeds. Sounds like only installers like FeedDemon and Newsgator support that, if its required.

    It also doesn’t have the tree view like Firefox live bookmarks. Theres a range in the way different readers display the posts. Some as a long list down the page where you have to change views to get to a specific one quickly. I like when all posts are listed and you can click to view it.


  2. This site compiled a bunch of videos.

    IE8 now has a reader, using the sidebar.
    Thunderbird and Outlook also support it now so you may find it easier to integrate RSS with software you already use.

    I like Firefox Live bookmarks best.


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