Why is RSS good for you!

This is the first of a two-part article in which I will explain basic terms related to RSS subscriptions and syndications. The second part will tell how this technology can prove to be useful to you as a reader.

Target readers: People who have a lot of online content to read but are always short of time.

The problem: I have a whole list of blogs, news and other technical sites which I like to check out regularly for new content. But while I’m online, I don’t know where to start and usually end up checking out a regular list of sites. They may not have anything interesting at that time and I have to go through my bookmarks again to choose another site. This process is looped n number of times to decide on something I really want to read. Some days I don’t find anything and just goof around. End result: waste of time and energy.

The ideal solution: Now, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some way that I found out automatically if there was something interesting on any of my favorite sites! Some thing like a ‘Title and a Summary’ of articles from different sources and I can instantly decide which article I wish to read. Of course I can subscribe to email newsletters but you can imagine how difficult it becomes to identify your personal mail out of those 157 promotional mails… and I’m not even mentioning the spam mails yet! Having multiple email ids just adds to the complexity.

The implementation of the solution: The ideal solution as mentioned above has been around for some time and people over the world have been using Common feed iconsit while we have been looking the other way. You must have come across some mysterious sounding words like RSS, XML, RDF, Feed, Syndicate etc. at numerous websites or seen these image links (mostly orange in color). But just like me, you never gave a second thought to them because didn’t understand what it was all about at the first thought! Never mind. We are going to unwrap the mystery and discover that they can actually prove to be one of the most productive words as far as spending time on your online reading-list is concerned.

The whole idea is enveloped around the word feed and this New RSS feed icon is the most common icon for a feed these days. We know that computers are good at repetitive tasks. Instead of visiting each site our self, we can tell the computer to go to the list of our sites and pick up the titles and a few lines of all the new articles from there and then present the information to us. But the computer needs a marker or a flag on that site so that it knows where to look for the title and the content. So the author of that site needs to put some markers to pin point the location of the title and the rest of the article.

How does some one put those markers which our computers will find easy to look for? Well, they do by putting their articles in XML format. The orange New RSS feed icon RSS/XML icon signifies that the site provides a computer friendly version besides the normal HTML version for humans. This kind of format makes the marker-stuff a bit standardized across the sites or various platforms. But why would the author go to the length of putting markers? To maintain or even increase his readership. It’s a win/win situation, especially when the process of putting the markers is also automatic. So don’t pity or thank the author! By the way, ever tried clicking on the orange RSS/XML icon? You will see very complex looking scripts. Hence point proved that they are meant only for computers.

This complex looking XML version is actually called a ‘Feed’. (Now you know :-)) And the orange RSS/XML icon is to tell you that you can tell a computer program (a.k.a Aggregator, Feed Reader) to fetch the content-feed from this site automatically. This method of publishing content by providing feeds is called Syndication. Now the question remains how do you tell the aggregator about this? I will answer this question in a while, but before that I want to tell something more about the aggregators.

Aggregators are the computer programs which do the repetitive task of actually getting the content from the multiple XML feeds you will specify and ‘aggregating’ the content into a format you like. There are so many good aggregators which you may have to install on your computer or there are other online ones too, like My Yahoo! or Google Reader which do not need to be installed. I use My Yahoo! and Bloglines.

I will now come back to adding the feeds to your feed reader. Hover your mouse over the orange RSS/XML icon and you will see a link in the status bar. Right-click on the orange button and click on Copy Shortcut on the popup menu. Now go to your feed-reader and paste the link into a place specified for this. That’s the end of it. Collect the feeds of your favorite sites/blogs in your feed-reader and whenever you open your feed reader you will find the headlines and first few lines of the post there, which might also include the time when the article was posted. Makes looking for interseting articles a lot easier and faster.

Further reading:
1-A really good start-to-finish 12-part tutorial by Amy.
2-Article with a bit history and technical bent – Fagan Finder.
3-Bit more gyan on this technology. Simple and elegant.
4-Excellent article with examples and screenshots of many feed-readers and their options.
5-Making a RSS feed – Step by Step.

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