What is RSS and what are web feeds? A beginners guide

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:

Feed icon RSS icon2 XML icon

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.

1. Online
a) Website RSS readers. Some examples are:

Pros: Requires no software installation, available from any computer.
Cons: Need to be online to access.

Google Reader
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:

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.

2. Desktop
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.

Thunderbird
Screenshot of Mozilla Thunderbird. Source: Wikipedia

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!

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23 thoughts on “What is RSS and what are web feeds? A beginners guide

  1. Great overview! I wanted to add some things that I think make yourminis.com stand out including the browser extension (http://blog.yourminis.com/extension/). The extension helps a user access yourminis with a one click in a transparent overlay above any web page. It also detects useful content on the page you are browsing (such as videos, RSS feeds, MP3s, etc) and allows you to add that content to your tabs… it’s a great way to build your tabs in yourminis.

    Some other cool features include publishing pages, check out some of these published pages:

    http://www.yourminis.com/mavs
    http://www.yourminis.com/50
    http://www.yourminis.com/coldplay

    Also, please provide your feedback and comments on our forums at http://forums.yourminis.com.

    We have more cool features coming out every week, so look out for them!

    Like

  2. Okay I thought I was the only one who didn’t know what RSS was and how it could benefit me, but after reading this post…I’m now in the “know”.

    🙂

    Like

  3. Thanks for the comment Latisha. In my non-scientific poll of my internet savvy 20-something friends, I was the only one who knew what RSS was. Seems to me there’s a huge gulf in knowledge which maybe sometimes we don’t appreciate. Interesting website by the way!

    Like

  4. Despite working in the IT arena and supposedly being ‘tech-savvy’, I’ve not gone down the RSS route until recently. However grabbing IE7 as soon as it arrived I soon had some feeds heading in and, without a doubt, they are both easy and useful.

    I’ll still continue to browse my favourite sites, but rss compliments this nicely.

    Like

  5. Pingback: Life Goggles »
  6. great piece of information.easy to understand the way u have presented the basic and after reading i find RSS useful.
    i m going for it.
    Thanks ..!!

    Like

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