10/03/2008

What is RSS?

What is RSS?

If you’re new to RSS and need an introduction to help you get started, then this tutorial is a good place to learn some basics. You will also learn how to subscribe to the feeds on loadaverageZero so you can find out what’s new around here without having to keep coming back to the site until you want to. That, in a nutshell, is what RSS feeds are all about: Let the information come to you instead of actively searching for it.

Contents

What is RSS?
What are those strange little orange buttons?
What is a News Reader?
What is a News Aggregator Site?
Can I access RSS feeds from my Browser?
What is Auto Discovery?
What is Atom?
RSS Feeds on loadaverageZero
Conclusion and Additional Resources
What is RSS?RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site

In summary, and like a magazine or newspaper, it’s a way to supply you with a list of current news items in a brief format so you can scan headlines and choose the items that interest you most. All without visiting the Web sites that publish them. That is, until you want to read the entire article. To do this you just click on the headline like any normal link on a Web site.

Since news headlines come to you instead of the other way around, RSS is referred to as content distribution or syndication.

What are those strange little orange buttons?You will often see that a site has RSS content, or a feed (sometimes called a channel), when you notice a small button (usually an orange color) with the acronym XML or RSS on it. Like this: . The reason you see these XML buttons is because that is the file format that RSS is delivered in, much like Web pages are written in HTML.

The orange buttons (or chicklets) are becoming less common however, often times RSS feeds appear as an option on a menu, and some browsers will have a special way of indicating that the site you are visiting has RSS feeds.

However, many browsers are not equipped to handle RSS feeds in this raw XML format. You may have already run across this if you ever clicked on an RSS link and were surprised by a bunch of computer source code instead of a Web page. Or the browser might even have asked you to download the page because it didn’t know what else to do with it. What you really need is a way of rendering that code into a readable form.

What is a News Reader?

There are many ways to read news feeds. There are dedicated programs called News Readers, many of them free, that are designed to do this. Have a look at these Reviews if you’d like to learn more about downloading and installing one. Note that many people use the terms news Reader and news Aggregator interchangeably. To avoid any confusion, in my view a reader is a program that runs on your computer (sometimes called desktop software), and an aggregator is an online service. The results are pretty much the same—once you’ve subscribed to some feeds, you can browse a list of the latest stories and select the ones you like. Notice I said latest Items in a feed are always displayed with the most recent ones listed first.

What is a News Aggregator Site?

Another approach is to use an online service, called an News Aggregator, which are also free for the most part. This list of Online Aggregators will help you get started. If you are a member of Yahoo! or MSN, you can also subscribe to and access RSS feeds right from your personal page. More information about popular aggregator services can be found further down on this page.

Can I access RSS feeds from my Browser?Some browsers, such as Firefox, have plugin programs that allow you to read RSS feeds from right inside the browser. Sage is one such extension, and it is so simple to install and use, that if you’re just getting started with RSS consider giving it a try. This screenshot will show you what Sage looks like running inside Firefox.

Another handy extension for Firefox is Feedview, which allows you to preview almost any RSS feed without having to subscribe to it first. All you have to do is click on one of those RSS links. Other browsers, such as Safari for Mac, and Opera (which runs on many platforms), have support for reading news feeds already built in, so there’s no need to install anything.
What is Auto Discovery?Many sites, including this one, contain special links to news feeds embedded in the source code of the Web site. This is how a browser is able to determine that a site has feeds, and will usually indicate this through an icon appearing on the browser when you visit such a page. Firefox, for instance, displays a a special icon on the status bar located at the very bottom of the browser:

Note: It is quite possible that the icon will not look exactly like this with your copy of Firefox, depending on what operating system you are using, any theme (or skin) you may have installed, the browser version, and so forth. The easiest way to find out what these things do is to simply hover your mouse cursor over them.

Note: The Microsoft RSS development team recently announced that IE version 7 (due out in 2006) will use this same icon to represent RSS feeds. This is good news for all users, since it represents the beginnings of a consistent method of indicating news feeds—making it quicker and easier to determine if a site has RSS content regardless of which browser you use! Soon afterwards, Opera followed suit.

Many news readers and aggregators can also take advantage of auto-discovery. If you want to subscribe to a feed for a particular site and don’t know the address to the feed resource itself, often you can simply enter the address of the Web page and the program will automatically find the feed (or feeds) for you. Just copy the address of the site and paste it into the reader’s input box.

What is Atom?

You may have heard about something called Atom and wondered what it is and how it relates to RSS. Atom is just a newer feed format, one that is becoming more popular. As a subscriber this isn’t something you need to worry about. Most modern software can cope with the different versions of RSS as well as Atom. The results are basically the same.

RSS Feeds on loadaverageZeroThere are a number of RSS feeds on loadaverageZero. There is one for new posts to my blog, aptly named blogZero, another for Recent Additions to my list of Web resources called drx, and a third for News and Announcements relating to this Web site. If you look in the left menu area, just below the last menu item (which is highlighted because you are visiting this page), there are three pairs of small buttons. Just as in the example status bar icon, the first of these in each row is a link to the raw XML RSS feed, which you can use to import directy into you feed reader or aggregator. The second, larger, button is a link to the same feed via FeedBurner which allows you to both preview the feed in your browser and/or subscribe to it with your preferred RSS reader/aggregator. Notice that these buttons are designed to be easy to spot, as they are miniature versions of the logos that correspond to each of the features of this Web site that have distributed content. Yet another method of previewing headlines from these feeds to visit the dnews interface where you can simply pick them out from the Channel Selector.

Opposite the loadaverageZero feed buttons, in the right margin, is a vertical list of icons that you can also use to access my feeds. I have placed a red border around them temporarily so you can find them easily. The first one is just another way of accessing Recent Additions to drx, and the rest are pre-configured links to feed aggregator sites starting with FeedBurner (note that selecting this link will give you a nice preview of the feed), followed by NewsGator, NewsIsFree, Bloglines, Pluck and Rojo. The next one in the list is another preview via Kinja, and it will display a combination of all of my feeds (hence the term “aggregator”). After this is an icon that will work if you are using a Mac (notice it looks like the Mac logo), followed by a subscription link designed for My Yahoo! and another for MSN. For either of the last two icon subscription links to work, you need to have an account already created. If you don’t, it’s easy, and free, to do so.

Feed Icons

Here are those feed icons and aggregator links again so you don’t have keep jumping all over the page:

Recent Additions

FeedBurner: drx Recent Additions (with preview)
FeedBurner: loadaverageZero (with preview)
FeedBurner: blogZero (with preview)
NewsGator
NewsIsFree
Bloglines
Pluck
Rojo
Kinja
Mac
Yahoo!
MSN

Conclusion

There are many other RSS feed aggregator sites. The ones I created links to are popular, and also well designed and easy to use. In fact, I have accounts on all of them. I did this in order to make sure they provide quality services.

I understand that when you first get started using RSS, it may seem to be a bit of a mystery. Or, you may be thinking “How will using RSS improve my overall Web experience?” I think that once you get over the hurdle of using RSS feeds this will become readily apparent. If you still have questions about the RSS feeds on loadaverageZero (and in general), feel free to Contact Me. You can also visit the loadaverageZero Discussion Forums where there are 4 Comments on this article.

Additional Resources

For more advanced users, developers and programmers, drx contains a large list of RSS Resources. Of particular note are Michael Fagan’s All About RSS (which includes a glossary of terms) and Mark Nottingham’s excellent RSS Tutorial. For further details on RSS and related topics, Wikipedia is an outstanding source of information:

Aggregator
Atom
OPML
RSS
XML

Enjoy reading your RSS News feeds!

—Douglas Clifton
Last updated: Sunday, March 19th, 2006 @ 12:26 AM EST [2006-03-19T05:26:37Z]

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