What the Heck is RSS?

How many of you have had this experience: Someone has this cool website and they come up and ask you some variation of the question “Hey, have you subscribed to my RSS feed?” you then give them a resulting blank, ‘what are you talking about?’.

As common and prevalent as Feeds are these days on news and blog sites, I’m continually surprised at how few people know about them or use them to collect all their interweb news.  Granted, it’s one of those fairly new technologies that has only emerged in the last decade or so, but it’s one of those things that is SO extremely useful to myself that I have a hard time imagining what I would do without it.  So rather quickly I’m going to cover the basics of what an RSS ‘Feed’ is, how to use it, and why in a way that hopefully everyone that is fairly familiar with the internet and computers can understand.

An RSS ‘Feed’ itself is just part of a web page.  Think of it as a special page that’s somewhat hidden away that you don’t see, but keeps track of everything that happens on the site.  Many people simply call it a ‘feed’ because it essentially feeds information to hungry people like yourself, not sure where or when that term was coined, but its a common part of the lingo.

Now, here’s the cool part, many of the applications you already use everyday that connect to the internet have the ability to ‘subscribe’ to an RSS feed.  Subscribing is a fancy way of saying that your telling the program where the RSS feed is so that it can get the latest and greatest data off of it.  There are a lot of applications that do this, your mail clients such as Outlook, Apple Mail, Entourage, Thunderbird etc… all have the ability to ‘subscribe’ to an RSS feed and here’s the really cool part, every time someone adds some news to there site it appears in your inbox almost like an e-mail would appear within a few minutes of that piece of news being posted.  Now you can go and look at it and read it at your own convenience.  Your web browser may also have the ability to subscribe to Feeds as well, in Firefox they are called ‘Live Bookmarks’ which appear as a folder in your bookmarks and contain links to all the latest posts.  Whatever program you decide to use is your own personal preference, I personally use a service called Google Reader, but there are many to choose from.

But how do I subscribe to a feed?

Usually, you will want to subscribe to a feed as you’re looking at someones site, (take mine for instance), sometimes the site will have a button with a ‘Subscribe to our site!’ button that you can click on, others may have a smaller link somewhere (I have one at the bottom of my site that says ‘Entries Feed‘). In Firefox, clicking on one of these links brings up a selection box that lets you pick what you want to use to subscribe to the feed.  Some sites however, won’t even have a link even though the site may have an RSS Feed built in.  In these cases you’ll have to figure out how your browser works, but usually there will be a visual que somewhere that you can subscribe.  In firefox, if you can subscribe you’ll see a button that looks like this:

rss

Depending on the site, it will bring up a little menu, just click on one of them and you can then pick what you want to subscribe with and your good to go! It will take some playing around with and experimentation, but in the end, it’s something that is VERY useful for keeping tabs on a lot of different information.

I hope this helps some people understand what RSS feeds are and how they can be used, if you have questions or need help, feel free to leave a comment!

Paul Rohde

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