MasterNewMedia
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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

What Is RSS: A Guide To Really Simple Syndication Benefits, Best Uses And Applications

This is a guide explaining what RSS is and how to best use it. It is targeted at the non-technical user who has not had yet the opportunity to fully understand what RSS is all about and how to best put it to use.

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Photo credit: Max Delson

RSS is a powerful but simple way to gather content from all over the web, making it easy for you to follow the latest updates from all of your favorite websites without having to visit them all individually.

But it's much more than that. In this beginner's guide to RSS I take you on a guided tour of some of the great things RSS can do for you, whether you are interested in cutting through the glut of information swamping the web, or using RSS to help you in your blogging or independent business.

I walk you through:

  • An RSS overview - giving you the basic facts about RSS
  • Why RSS? - some reasons that you might find RSS useful in your everyday use of the web
  • Where to find RSS on a website and how you can subscribe to the content you enjoy most
  • The types of content that RSS can bring to your desktop or online "aggregator"
  • How to gather your RSS feeds using a Feed Reader or Podcatcher
  • Creating News Radars and Linkblogs - how you can use RSS to gather content from all over the web and create hand-picked news radars of content as a resource for your site visitors
  • Creating an "ego radar", a way of monitoring what people are saying about you and your content all over the web
  • Creating a lifestream - an aggregated collection of your online publishing, from Flickr photos, to blog posts, YouTube videos and Twitter tweets
  • Creating your own RSS feed - a simple way to make sure that people can syndicate and subscribe to your content
  • Submitting your feed to RSS directories - how you can maximize your web exposure by making use of the huge list of RSS directories gathered together by Robin Good
  • Feed scraping - how you can turn any website content into an RSS feed, even if it doesn't supply a feed of its own
  • Filtering, merging and refining RSS feeds - how you can refine the information you receive from an RSS feed to suit your exact needs

So pick and choose what you need, take what you are interested in, and enjoy using RSS to make navigating the endless ocean of web content a lot more precise and suited to your individual needs.

 

RSS - Overview

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RSS is a great, and simple, way for you to bring content from all over the web to easy to browse location - whether that's a media player like iTunes or a "feed reader", a kind of email inbox for the web.

Just like you might subscribe to the magazines or cable TV channels that interest you most, RSS allows you to subscribe to web content - be that news headlines, weather reports, podcasts or blog posts - and have that content delivered to you. No more visiting twenty different websites to check if they've been updated - with RSS, you are notified the minute new material arrives that might be of interest to you.

RSS has risen to become a standard way of syndicating and delivering web content, and you are likely to find the option of subscribing to an "RSS feed" for almost any blog, and many websites, photo sharing applications, video publishing destinations and a lot more besides.

This is made possible by a simple markup language called XML, but you don't need to worry about technical details to make great use of RSS in making navigating the web and finding information a lot easier and a great deal more efficient.

Whether you want to get up-to-the-minute updates about stocks you've invested in, find out what bloggers and reviewers are writing about your business, or just create a custom filtered collection of the news that misses out all of the things you have no interest in, RSS can make a great deal of difference to how you use the web. In this guide I'll show you how.



Why Use RSS?

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Photo credit: Common Craft

The simplest reason to use RSS is that it is going to save you time.

If you visit more than a couple of websites, follow the pictures, videos and public profiles of your friends and colleagues, or want to keep up to date about the newest trends and changes in your industry, you already have a compelling number of reasons to put RSS to use.

Robin Good tracked down this great video that gives you the basics about why you might want to put RSS to use, created by Lee and Sachi LeFever of the Common Craft show. In this short and very entertaining video, you'll get an at-a-glance idea as to why using RSS is going to save you a lot of time, and make navigating the saturation-point information on the web a lot less troublesome:

As you'll have seen, using RSS to gather your favorite web content makes a lot of sense. It's the difference between watching TV without a remote control - having to get up and switch channels manually - and quickly channel surfing with a remote control. Once you've made the jump, there's no going back.



How Do I Find a RSS Feed On a Website?

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The icon you'll see most often for an RSS feed is an orange square with what looks like a white radio wave inside it. This is very often placed at the top of a website or blog, or next to a category or the title of a podcast or blog if you are browsing a directory.

You might also see the phrase "subscribe to my feed", "RSS feed" or other variations, and just to confuse you may even see "XML" in the box. Some people might change the color of the icon, to further throw you off the scent, but if you recognize the shape, or see any of the above phrases used, chances are you can click through to subscribe to the content you've found.

If you're using a modern browser like Firefox, Internet Explorer 7, Safari or Flock (to name a few) your browser may tell you when a website has a feed available for you by displaying the RSS symbol, or the word RSS right inside or next to your browser's address bar (the place you type website addresses).

Depending on how you have your browser configured clicking on an RSS feed button will either subscribe within the browser's own "feed reader", or activate the subscription in your feed reader of choice - whether that's on your desktop, or online.

If you want to take the RSS feed and manually place it in your feed reader, or save it for later, you simply have to right-click (control-click on a Mac) on the button and select "save link location". This will then be copied to your clipboard, so that you can paste it wherever you like.



What Types of Content Can RSS Bring Me?

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Photo credit: LoBoCo

RSS isn't limited to just bringing blog posts to your feed reader. In fact, almost any type of web content can be syndicated using RSS. Think of it like a tube for sending information from one place to another - it doesn't mind what that data is, so long as it has an RSS feed.

That means that you can subscribe to a friend's collection of photos on Flickr, for instance, and every time your friend adds a new set of photos, you'll receive them automatically in your feed reader. Or if you want to follow a particular Internet TV show or audio podcast, you can subscribe to its feed, and have the content automatically appear in iTunes, Miro or another "podcatcher" with similar capabilities.

RSS will happily transmit video, audio and even documents by placing them in what's called an "enclosure", which acts in a similar way to an email attachment. But while an attachment actually contains the full file, an enclosure simply provides a link to the content so that it can be downloaded by your feed reading software.

Just as you can subscribe to any of these types of content, then, it's also relatively simple for you to syndicate any content you can think of with RSS. In short, if you follow or create web content with some degree of regularity, RSS is a great way of making sure that you - or your audience - gets the latest updates as soon as they go live.

In his excellent overview What Can You Do With RSS? Robin Good covers some of the further reaches of what it's possible to use RSS for, including:

  • Sharing calendars - using services like Google Calendar
  • Tracking classified ads - like Craigslist
  • Monitoring auctions - such as ebay
  • And a lot more that you may not have considered possible with a simple RSS feed



How To Gather RSS Feeds Together

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There are several ways of gathering all of your favorite content together with RSS, and these are roughly divided by function.

I have gathered here two of the most popular ways of collecting your RSS feeds - Feed Readers and Podcatchers:



Feed Readers

A Feed Reader is very much like an email inbox. Only instead of emails, the latest updates from the feeds you've subscribed to appear as their parent website is updated. These updates appear most commonly in reverse chronological order, again like an email application, with the latest at the top.

Just like Outlook, Thunderbird or Apple Mail you can also sort the incoming information into folders to better organize your content, and have the option of viewing the latest items by the website they originated from (like sorting emails by sender), or as a "river of news", flowing together and organized simply by the time that they were originally published.

If you compare this with surfing to different websites and manually checking for content, it quickly becomes apparent how convenient it is to have the content come directly to you. This way you can quickly scan through a great deal of information in a very short time, deciding if you'd like to read the full article, watch the full video, or listen to the full podcast, or move on to the next item in your list.

Whichever feed reader you decide to use - and there are a great many alternatives - you will see common features, such as a way of adding a new feed. To add a feed, you simply paste the RSS information you copied from a website feed icon into the appropriate dialog box, and click on subscribe. From then on, all of the latest content is updated in your feed reader.



Online Vs. Desktop Feed Readers

You can aggregate and read your web feeds from either an online feed reader, or one that you use from your desktop.

Online feed readers are a popular choice, given that you can access them from any computer, anywhere in the world, and still have access to your selection of RSS feeds. On the other hand, desktop readers don't require you to launch your browser, work offline, and often have the benefits of an extended set of features.

If you decide to try an online feed reader perhaps the most popular choice is the free Google Reader, which is easy to use and can be accessed using the same Google sign-in as you would use for your Google Mail, Calendar or Documents accounts.

In the following short video Chris, one of the engineers for Google Reader, briefly explains the tool and how easy it is to use:

If you'd like to explore some of the alternatives for reading your feeds online, Frank Gruber has put together an excellent comparison of nine web-based feed reader applications for Tech Crunch.

For desktop feed readers the choice is equally wide, and Metacentric has compiled a extensive list of the possibilities.

My own favorite desktop feed reader is the excellent NetNewsWire for Macintosh, and I have heard great things about its Windows sibling Feed Demon. Both offer extensive feature-sets, but retain a simplicity and ease-of-use, and are relatively inexpensive.

Another excellent desktop feed reader, and one that works on Mac, Windows and Linux is Blogbridge. I reviewed version six of this simple but very powerful feed reading application recently, and found it to be an excellent solution, especially given that the reader itself is free.

It's also worth bearing in mind that if you use the latest version of Apple Mail (Mac only) or Mozilla Thunderbird 2 (cross platform) that you already have a feed reader right inside your mail application. If you'd like to multi-task and have your information nicely gathered together, you might also consider giving these free options a spin.

Finally, a great many modern web browsers will allow you to subscribe to feeds right inside the browser itself. While the features are rather limited compared to a stand-alone feed reader, if you are only looking to subscribe to a small selection of news feeds, this might well prove sufficient for you. For superb integration of RSS feeds and other social media services, I highly recommend the free, cross-platform browser Flock.



Podcatchers

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While a lot of the above-mentioned feed readers will also download media enclosures for you, the process is a little more complicated than if you use a specific tool called a "podcatcher". A podcatcher is essentially a feed reader for media files, and most of the options available will have the capability to automatically download, organize and watch or listen to media files from a single application.

The two most popular options, besides the great many listed and compared at Podcatcher Matrix go slightly beyond the podcatcher functionality and actually present full media player capabilities - they are iTunes and Miro.

On the surface they present a similar set of features - directories of media content to choose podcasts from, instant downloading of the latest episodes for podcasts you have subscribed to, and the ability to categorize, file and watch your media from a single application.

However, in my humble opinion, Miro goes way further than iTunes in both its feature set and its commitment to supporting open standards and the open source ethos.

As I pointed out in my recent in-depth review of Miro, here is an open platform that makes it incredibly easy to search videos from YouTube and many other video sharing websites, download content via BitTorrent, and subscribe to thousands of podcast feeds from a well stocked directory, before watching your downloaded videos in a high definition, full screen player. This is an unbeatable combination.



Custom News Radars

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Photo credit: Apple Motion Content

Robin Good's concept of the News Radar has already been well documented, and has been described by News Radar professional Marjolein Hoekstra as:

" ...a constantly updated thematic channel of highly relevant web references that are gathered in accordance with specific, persistent search criteria. Radars can focus on anything: topics, people, opinions, products, news items, events or passions. The constant updating of the channel is accomplished by leveraging RSS technology to its full power."

While the confines of this guide don't give me space to go into a great deal of detail about the creation of news radars - keep your eyes peeled for a future guide - it might pay to briefly explore how you could begin to create a news radar, and why you might want to.

If you are running an independent online publishing company, or any other type of web-based business you will already doubtless spend a lot of time tracking the latest information in your industry, or within the subject niche of your blog. Whether that's for the purposes of republishing your findings for an audience, or simply keeping abreast of the latest goings on, creating a custom news radar may very well prove to be a highly useful way of tracking this information.

To give you a concrete example, if you take a look at the left column of the Master New Media front page you'll see Robin Good's regularly updated selection of news items targeted to the interests of the readers of this website.

This is created by Robin subscribing to a number of web feeds on these key thematic concerns, including not only popular blogs, but also the RSS feeds gathered from social bookmarking websites such as del.icio.us, search results from blog search engines such as Google Blogsearch and a great many others.

Because while you can monitor a great many blogs and websites at once, the amount of signal to noise you receive might prove to be too much. When you consider that it is possible to subscribe to RSS feeds for specific search terms, suddenly the possibilities open up.

You can subscribe to a feed for all results for the search term "web 2.0 collaboration" at Google Blogsearch, for instance, and every time someone uses this term in their blog, you will receive an update from Google letting you know. This alone can be a very powerful way of monitoring the latest news in your content or business niche.

Once you have these results gathered, you can then easily publish them to the web for others to make use of using such services as the web widget Grazr, any number of simple RSS-to-HTML tools available, or simply by manually adding links to your blog from the most interesting news items that pass through your feed reader. This provides your readers with an excellent resource, and can attract a significant rise in web traffic if your selections prove to be useful and timely.

For more information about creating your own news radar, you might like to take a look at Rok Hrastnik's interview with Robin Good about the process, or Marjolein Hoekstra's breakdown of how she created a powerful news radar on the theme of podcasting professionals.



Ego Radars and Vanity Feeds

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A very rudimentary form of news radar that can be very useful to both businesses and would-be professional bloggers is the "ego radar", also known as a "vanity feed".

This refers to the creation of a feed or series of feeds that monitor your name, the name of your product, or that of your company or blog.

While this might sound egotistical, it actually serves the very useful function of helping you to note and - crucially - respond to bloggers and other online publishers that are talking about you or your business.

So if someone is singing your praises, wishing that they could get some support for your service, or publicly criticizing your work, you will be the first to know and can make sure that you respond in a timely way.

To create a simple ego radar you might enter your name or whichever term you want to follow, using quotation marks, in Google Blog Search, Ask Blog Search, Technorati, Ice Rocket or even Google News if you are a newsworthy company.

For each search you run, you will be able to locate an RSS feed on the page,copy the RSS address, and bring this into your feed reader. From this point onwards, whenever you are talked about, you will be able to respond and enter into the conversation.

Darren Rowse of Problogger has written a great post on why you might want to create a vanity feed if this isn't apparent, and even walks you through the process step-by-step.



Lifestreaming

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If you use a number of online services, such as Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Last.fm, you may find over time that you'd like a simple way of gathering the media you share through these different tools in a single place.

This has become known as a "lifestream", defined by Word Spy as:

"An online record of a person's daily activities, either via direct video feed or via aggregating the person's online content such as blog posts, social network updates, and online photos."

There are now a number of ways to create a Lifestream, and among the most popular are Tumblr and Jaiku. If you're interested in Jaiku, you can check out my Beginners Guide To Jaiku to get the bigger picture.

In short, what Jaiku and Tumblr both do is make it very easy for you to copy the feeds from your favorite social media services - Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, your blog, and so on, and aggregate all of your content together into a stream of information.

So every time you update your Facebook status, add some new pictures to Flickr, or write a blogpost, everything will be gathered in your Jaiku or Tumblr account. Your friends can even subscribe to your Jaiku or Tumblr RSS feed, so that they can follow all of your latest social media making from a single feed, right from their own feed reader.

In the following 30 second demo, Raj Dash shows you how to add the feed URL you have copied into Tumblr:



Creating Your Own RSS Feed

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Many popular blogging platforms such as Wordpress, Movable Type or Blogger will automatically assign your blog with its own RSS feed. But if you aren't sure where to find it, or want to keep tabs on how many people are subscribed to your content feed, the easiest thing is to create a feed using Feedburner.

All you have to do is type your URL into the box on the Feedburner frontpage and it will automatically discover and "burn" a Feedburner feed for you. You will then be prompted to create a "chicklet", a little icon that people can click on, and given instructions on how to place this inside your blog or website template.

From then on you'll be able to track how many people subscribe to your content, and make use of several other useful services, including optional updates. The basic Feedburner service is free.

The following short video from YouTube user Japhy Ryder walks you through creating your first Feedburner feed:



RSS Directories

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If you are publishing to the web, you are more than likely preoccupied to some extent with gaining a wider audience. One way to extend the visibility of your blog or website is to submit its feed to an RSS Directory.

Directories gather RSS feeds together, allowing their site visitors to run searches by keyword, tags and categories. Obviously the more of these directories your website is listed at, the greater exposure it is likely to receive - thus driving more traffic to your content.

Far and away the easiest way of keeping up to date with the most current, and important, RSS directories out there is by making use of Robin Good's RSS Top 55. This constantly updated list currently stands at some 223 entries, so will give you plenty to get stuck into if you are serious about getting your web content promoted far and wide.



Feed Scraping

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Sometimes you'll find a website that has no RSS feed, however hard you look, but does have the type of constantly updated information that would perfectly match RSS aggregation.

Luckily, it is possible to create a feed for a website that doesn't have one - this process is called "feed scraping" and there are a number of services available that make this a relatively painless experience.

You can find excellent summaries of the various scraping tools on offer both here at Master New Media, and in Marshall Kirkpatrick's thoughtful post on the matter.

While the three services covered in both posts - Feed43, Feedfire and FeedYes do have some key differences, they essentially perform a similar function.

You begin by entering the URL of the website you wish to "scrape", and the services mentioned will then go away and find content that you might want to subscribe to. By selecting the key information and weeding out the unimportant items - such as menu information and metadata - you will finally be left with the part of the website of most interest to you.

Finally, you will be given an RSS feed which you can then bring into your feed reader to monitor the website in question without having to return directly to it in your browser for each update.



Filtering, Merging And Manipulating RSS Feeds

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If you are processing a great deal of information, rather than a small selection of feeds, there may come a point at which you want to filter, merge or otherwise refine the content of your feeds.

At the simpler end of the scale, you can use the powerful features baked into Blogbridge to search for specific keywords within your incoming feeds, or to create "smart feeds" based on your selection of keywords. In both cases you can then filter through all of the information that appears in your feed reader "inbox" based on your own criteria. I wrote extensively about these great features in my recent review of Blogbridge 6.

For a greater degree of control, albeit a little bit at the cost of usability, there are few services that can hold a torch to MySyndicaat, which will allow you to use a vast variety of criteria for sorting through your incoming feed content.

Filtering by multiple keywords is just the tip of the iceberg, and MySyndicaat allows you to merge your feeds, create powerful news radars and publish the results to the web or as a new master feed. Robin Good reviewed this powerful tool in full back in 2005, and has been using it exclusively for a long time as his RSS tool of choice.

Somewhere between the two you'll find the relatively easy to use, but nonetheless well featured Feed Digest which helps you to merge and filter your feeds by keywords, and also to generate ready-to-publish lists of your resulting feeds right on your website.

If you're still looking for more ways to manipulate your RSS feeds, you might well enjoy taking a look at Robin's selection of RSS Tools and Services, hand selected from his long-running Sharewood Picks series. Here you'll find tools for:

  • Scraping and creating custom RSS feeds from sites that do not have any
  • Generating your own RSS feeds even if you don't have a web site
  • Mixing multiple RSS feeds into so-called news radars or master feeds
  • Receiving your RSS feed subscribed content within your preferred instant messaging tool
  • Converting RSS feeds in a variety of other formats
  • Tracking and monitoring web pages changes via RSS
  • Filtering RSS feeds from unwanted content
  • Publishing an easy to access page that simplifies RSS readers subscriptions
  • Generating serialized, cycling RSS feeds
  • Future-publishing and scheduling RSS post for delayed delivery

As becomes quickly apparent from this list, it has only been possible to touch on the tip of the iceberg for this introductory guide to RSS. I hope you have a lot of fun discovering all of the ways that you can manipulate your own feeds to better serve your needs as you become more comfortable with RSS and its powerful capabilities.



Summary

RSS isn't just for geeks. In fact, it can make both finding and publishing relevant and interesting content on the web a lot easier, in addition to providing another effective way of promoting your own online content - whether that's in the form of a blog, podcast, or video show.

Essentially RSS, which stands for "Really Simple Syndication", is a simple way that you can receive updates from blogs, online news websites and other rich media as soon as they are published to the web. Rather than having to visit all of your favorite sites several times to see if any new content has been added, RSS brings the content to you the minute it goes live.

You can collect this content in a number of ways - the two most popular being feed readers for text-based content, and podcatchers (also known as media aggregators) for audio and visual content like podcasts and video shows. In both cases the simple tools involved resemble your email inbox - every time a new episode of a web tv show, or post from a blog, is published to the web, it appears in the top of your feed reader or podcatcher, just as a new email would in your inbox.

Subscribing to this content is push button simple, and it's even possible to filter your "feeds" for keywords to narrow down the information that reaches you.

With RSS you can gather all of the information from the far corners of the web in one place, tailored to your specific interests and tastes. Whether you want to collect the latest stocks and shares forecasts, keep an eye on cheap flights and holiday deals, or filter the global news for articles that are likely to interest you, RSS can make a very big difference to the way you navigate the web.

And as you grow in your confidence, the possibilities of what you can achieve through RSS grow also. Suddenly what seemed like an arcane science suddenly opens up a powerful set of tools and strategies that you can use in your future business or publishing strategies.

Happy feed reading!



Additional Resources

If you'd like to read more about RSS, you might want to check out the following resources:




Originally written by Michael Pick for Master New Media and titled "What Is RSS: A Guide To Really Simple Syndication Benefits, Best Uses And Applications"

 
 
 
Readers' Comments    
2007-12-23 11:34:30

Phil

Very thorough and enlightening.



 
posted by Michael Pick on Tuesday, November 20 2007, updated on Tuesday, March 22 2011


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