I’ve been working on an article on some cool, advanced or even odd-ball uses of RSS feeds lately and I figured not everybody may be on the same page and understand the concept behind RSS and its benefits. Before, I got to the advanced things to do with RSS, I figured we should cover the basics.
“RSS is a simple format which enables web sites to tell you when they have new content. Instead of visiting your favorite sites to find out if they’ve been updated, you simply subscribe to them and let them come to you.”
An RSS feed is a list of items like articles, pictures, or videos but it really could be any thing. There are even digital picture frames that can automatically update the pictures they show through the RSS feed from Flickr. You’ll frequently see RSS feeds available on websites where it contains the last few articles and automatically updates when new posts are published. They’re usually denoted by an icon that looks like this:
(although usually not in pillow form)
An RSS feed is written in XML, meaning that you can use tons of different programs, including Notepad, to open the file and read what’s inside. However, for a feed to be truly useful, formatted properly, and automate how you are updated of new content, you’ll want to use a feed reader. There are tons of feed readers available from web services to stand-alone desktop applications. Many e-mail clients like Outlook and Thunderbird also double as feed readers as do web browsers like Firefox.
My favorite feed reader is the web service from Google, Google Reader.
The greatest feature that I like about Google Reader is that it just works. It’s ubiquitous so anywhere I can check the web, I can also check Google Reader. This helps me know if anything new has been posted on any of my favorite sites; these can be urgent messages, new movie trailers, or the latest webcomic. Google Reader works as a mobile device and they just released an official Android app to access the site.
To add a feed to your Google Reader, you can use the Add a subscription and copy / paste the feed’s address. If you have a feed reader client like FeedDemon, it will automatically activate when you click on a feed link. Fortunately, Firefox makes it a lot easier and automates the process. If you’re using Firefox, don’t have a feed reader client installed, and click on an RSS feed link, you’ll see the screen below pop up.
From the drop-down, you can select to use a number of different services to subscribe to the RSS feed. For my use, I chose Google.
After hitting the Subscribe Now button, you’ll get the following two choices from Google: Add to Google homepage or Add to Google Reader. Adding to the Google homepage will give you a little widget on your iGoogle page while adding to Google Reader will obviously add the feed to your Google Reader account.
I tried out FeedDemon for a while as a desktop client but it just didn’t mesh with my habits and my working across multiple machines. The great thing about FeedDemon is that it can synchronize with Google Reader. This allows you to keep all of your subscriptions “in the cloud” and you don’t have to reread any messages if you sit down at a different computer.
FeedDemon is a 3.6MB free download that works on Windows XP or later and requires Internet Explorer 7 or later. You can import from BlogLines, RSS Bandit, an OPML file, or the Windows Common Feed that tends to get in the way with Vista or Windows 7. FeedDemon uses IE to provide a built-in browser so you can easily transition from your feed to the full content while supporting tabs. FeedDemon can be minimized to the system tray with an icon that will show when you have unread items. FeedDemon can also be perfect for notebooks/netbooks as it can allow you to do offline reading of your feeds.
There are plenty of choices out there feed readers on all sorts of devices. For the Palm Pre, I liked Feed Free because of its Google Reader synchronization. Feedly is becoming a big means of accessing feeds and Flipboard for the iPad can make your feeds a visual masterpiece. If you run a website, you have to know about FeedBurner. Google acquired it a few years ago and it’s become pretty much the de facto feed analytics service.
A lot of understanding RSS feeds and how they work for you will take some time and practice on your part to see what you like and don’t like. If you’re doing it right, RSS feeds should ensure you never miss an update and will make your browsing more efficient. If you want to start right away, you can subscribe to 404 Tech Support with this link here so you’ll be notified of every new article: http://feeds.feedburner.com/404t3chsupport
Stay tuned next week for the Advanced RSS tricks article.