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What’s RSS, and why should I care?

By on Mar 9, 2009 in Personal Technology, Tutorials

RSS is all over the web these days. You may have heard of it, or seen the RSS icon (RSS-icon.jpg). You may be using it already without even knowing it. If you read content on the web, it’s probably good to be familiar with it.

The basics

RSS is simply a special format for content on the Internet. Most things you read on the web are in web pages – that is, they are surrounded by graphics, HTML formatting, and the “skin” of the website. An RSS-formatted file contains the content without any of the skin, as well as some “metadata” – information about the content – including the title of the content, when it was published, and a link to the original content on the web.

An RSS feed is a series of content pieces in a single RSS-formatted file. A news site, for example, will add new articles to its RSS feed when they are published.

So why is this useful?

If you read stuff online – news, articles, or blogs – you probably visit a number of different sites each day. Many (if not all) of these sites will have RSS feeds, and you can use an RSS reader to automatically collect the different RSS feeds and aggregate all the articles into a single place – basically creating your own custom website, with the articles you want from the websites you want to visit, all in one place.

I like this because it makes me more efficient. Here’s how:

  • I save time by seeing all my reading material in one place instead of loading different websites.
  • The reader tells me if a site is updated, so I don’t visit websites with stale content.
  • All my reading material is available in a consistent, easy-to-read format, without extra ads, graphics, or other distractions. Because I don’t need to navigate different websites and graphics, I can read faster.
  • While many websites are tough to deal with on my iPhone, they are super easy to deal with in my RSS reader. I’m able to read most things just as easily on the road as I do at my desk.
  • Once I’ve read an article, it’s marked as read (and I can save articles for later).
  • Because it’s on Google, it’s super easy to search old articles.

It’s easy to get started.

There are a bunch of RSS readers out there. I prefer Google Reader because it’s web-based, relatively easy to use, and it has a great mobile interface. After I’ve read an article, it’s marked as read, and it won’t be downloaded to my iPhone (or my computer, if I read it on my iPhone).

To get started:

  • Go to http://www.google.com/reader. If you don’t already have a Google account, create one.
  • If you are using Firefox, you should see a little RSS icon in your browser window when you visit a website. Click it and you should be given the opportunity to add it to Google. Do this. The RSS Icon in a browser window
  • If you’re using Internet Explorer, of if clicking the RSS icon doesn’t work (in some cases, it won’t), you can add the website directly from Google Reader. Just click the “Add Subscription” in the upper right corner and enter the website’s URL.

Add a Subscription in Google Reader

I hope that you find Google Reader easy to use. I won’t go into detail about using Google Reader now (perhaps in a later article), but if you have any specific questions, please feel free to e-mail me.

A few extra notes.

Often times, a site won’t include an entire article in their RSS feed, especially if they are ad-based and want to drive more visits to their site. So, you might just get excerpts.

While RSS is the most widespread standard, and the defacto name for this sort of thing, a different standard, Atom, offers more functionality and is a rapidly growing number of sites (including Loud Dog). This shouldn’t matter to readers, though.

Though there are advantages to web-based readers (you’re accessing the same file regardless of which computer you’re using), there are disadvantages as well (you can’t access it without an Internet connection). If you install Google Gears, you can download all your unread articles and read them at your leisure. I haven’t tried this yet, but the next time I take a long flight, I will.

Hey! This wasn't written by a congress of ravens! It was written by , who does awesome work at Loud Dog, a digital branding firm in San Francisco that helps businesses express themselves authentically via identities, websites, and marketing collateral.

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