What is RSS and what are web feeds? A beginners guide
Written by Joel
With the launch of Internet Explorer 7 (IE7), RSS has finally come to the masses. Tech savvy (and Firefox) users have been using them for years and yet many people have never heard of them. What is RSS and what are web feeds? RSS may stand for Really Simple Syndication, but what does that mean to you? A web feed is, for all intents and purposes, the same as an RSS feed. But what are they and how do you use them?
RSS simply allows a website to automatically publish a basic file of “what’s new”. A user (i.e. you) can subscribe to this file (called a feed) and be notified of anything new that has been written on that particular website since you last received an update. It’s a quick and easy way of finding what is new on a site without necessarily having to visit the site yourself. Using a feed aggregator (more on these in a second), you can quickly keep up-to-date on the latest updates to many websites all in one place.
Let’s have a quick look at Life Goggles. When visiting this site, you can see the large orange RSS icon at the top right of the page. On other websites the location and look of these can vary, some examples are below:
That’s all very well, but once you have found a feed, what do you do with it? You need to add this feed to a feed aggregator, a system that collects all your feeds in one place and converts the feed into an easily readable format. There are quite a few ways in which to read these updates.
a) Website RSS readers. Some examples are:
Pros: Requires no software installation, available from any computer.
Cons: Need to be online to access.
Screenshot of Google Reader. Source: Google Reader
b) Personalised homepage. There are many varieties of personalised homepages where feeds (as well as other “widgets”, such as email inboxes, weather updates, clocks, etc) can be added. These include:
- Live.com (Microsoft)
- My Yahoo. Also the new Yahoo Mail contains the ability to read RSS feeds.
- Pageflakes, Yourminis, Netvibes, plus many more.
Pros: Can also add other “widgets” besides RSS feeds.
Cons: Need to be online to access.
c) Browser Readers. Users of IE7 and Firefox web browsers will see the feed icon on their toolbars “light up”, or appear when a feed is available for a website. They can then subscribe to these feeds and read them directly in the browser as if they were a webpage.
Pros: Easy to add a feed, work just like bookmarks/favourites, but to a feed rather than a webpage.
Cons: Personal preference, I don’t find the feeds as easy to read to other systems.
a) Standalone reader software
Pros: Can download and read offline. Typically faster to use.
Cons: Only available on the computer the software is installed on.
b) Integrated into your desktop email
Pros: Simplifies the reading process, just like email. Doesn’t always require separate software installation.
Cons: Only available on the computer the plugin/software is installed on.
For those who don’t want to use an online/desktop reader, feeds are often available by email. Here at Life Goggles we use a service by Feedburner that automatically emails out any updates to this website every day. If there are no updates you don’t get an email, if there are 10 updates you only get one email. You can sign up here to see how this works.
Overall RSS/web feeds are an attempt to allow users easy access to the latest updates on their favourite websites, in one convenient place of your choice. Your method of reading them is down to personal preference. Try a few of the free options and see which one you prefer – there are many more than mentioned here and a web search for ‘RSS reader’ will find plenty of alternatives. If you have any suggestions please let us know. Once you discover RSS feeds, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them!