Posted in technology, web at 7:03 pm by wingerz


Over the past few weeks several people have asked me about the significance of RSS. In short, it’s one of several standards that will change the way that you get content from the Web. Instead of you having to periodically visit various sites to look for the latest content, sites publish feeds that are aggregated by feed readers, and you simply go to the feed reader to view new content from all of the sites. A feed is structured data that describes (and usually contains) recently posted content – it is a list of items (called entries), each of which usually has a title, author, publishing time, content, and some other data. RSS is one format for this structured content, Atom is another. Feeds and feed readers save you the trouble of having to poll sites for new content, and it also ensures that you won’t miss anything on a high-volume site or lose interest in a low-volume site. More and more sites are syndicating their content, but not enough people are taking advantage of this.

Feed readers frequently request feeds from the sites that you have told them about, keeping track of new content since the last time you read. You can tell your reader to start tracking a feed by finding a feed’s URL (usually something that has some combination of feed, rss, atom, and xml) and giving it to the reader directly. This is annoying because you have to deal with finding, cutting, and pasting. Some feeds have reader-specific buttons next to them to allow you to subscribe using your particular reader, but this isn’t always something you can count on.


I’ve found that the best way to subscribe to new feeds is with a bookmarklet in my bookmarks toolbar. When I’m on a site that I’d like to subscribe to, I click the bookmarklet. This sends a request to my feed reader’s site that includes the URL of the current page. The reader can then analyze the page to find links to available feeds associated with the page (which were put there by a developer). If you look around on your feed reader’s site you should be able to find something that says “drag this to your bookmark toolbar to create a bookmarklet.” (I’ve also included the Bloglines and Google Reader ones at the bottom of this post.) Here’s my toolbar, which includes bookmarklets for Google Reader and Bloglines (and two other bookmarklets for posting links to del.icio.us and dogear).

Note that if the site’s developer was lazy and didn’t include links to the feed in the page, you’ll have to find it yourself. Look for “feed”, “rss”, “syndicate”, “atom”, or the pretty orange icon. Once you find it you will have to copy the URL of the feed and paste it into your reader. Of course, it’s also possible that the page doesn’t have any feeds associated with it at all, in which case you’re stuck checking back every so often the old-fashioned way.

Some of the more popular web-based feed readers:

  • Bloglines: What I currently use. It’s simple. The main drawback is a 200-post limit on every feed. Fortunately I don’t go on vacation very often so the feeds don’t have a chance to accumulate.
  • Google Reader: What I’m trying out for a few weeks. Also web-based, doesn’t have the 200-post limit, plus I’ve seen some good reviews for it. My two nitpicky complaints so far deal with subscribing to feeds: 1) when links to multiple feeds are present in a page, the GR bookmarklet doesn’t let me choose which feed I want to subscribe to and 2) When I subscribe a feed it doesn’t let me put it in a folder – I can only do that later when I’m organizing my feeds.
  • Netvibes: I’ve never tried it before, but Grant loves it. The UI looks pretty snazzy.

There are also some other non-web-based feed readers, like RSS Bandit, which Lee uses. I’d recommend setting up an account with a few of them and seeing which one feels the best.

So, that should be enough to get you started. Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Then just surf as you normally would, but subscribe to sites using your bookmarklet. In a few days you’ll be letting the syndicated content come to you. And you’ll probably be addicted to your feed reader. The technology is definitely mature and prevalent enough to be useful to just about everyone. For example, my non-techy wife uses Bloglines to track all of those great celebrity gossip blogs. Isn’t technology great?

For you feed power-users, feel free to jump in with comments about your favorite tools and blogs.

[Bookmarklets (drag to your bookmarks toolbar):
Bloglines | Google Reader]

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