January 13, 2010 | WhatIs

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RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication.

It’s a handy way to get updates from the websites you want to keep apprised of.

Normally, to find out if a website you like has updated their content, you would have to remember to visit it every day. That’s a problem because some sites may update their content more often than once a day; others may update only occasionally. Either way, you’re either visiting too frequently or not enough. And, in any case, there’s no telling whether by the time you visit, they’ll have fresh content up:
Fresh Content

or stale:

Stale Content

RSS to the rescue

To the rescue RSS solves this problem. Instead of you going manually to a favorite website’s homepage, the website makes availble a special web address that you give to what’s called an feed reader. Located at the RSS web address is the “feed” of updated content.

Here’s an excerpt of what it looks like:

RSS XML Excerpt

As you can see, each item of content has a title, a link, a date, and (not shown) either an excerpt or the full content of the posted article.

RSS feed readers

Obviously, you’re not going to be checking the RSS feed addresses manually. That’d be worse than manually checking homepages.

Rather, you enter the feed address into your feed reader, also called an RSS aggregator (because it brings together feeds from many websites into one convenient place).

The feed reader occasionally (usually hourly) checks your favorite websites to see if they have updated content. If they do, it’s indicated in some way in the feed reader. Usually, they use the same display format as popular e-mail programs like Outlook and Thunderbird. I.e., new and unread items are displayed with titles bolded. You can read the content right in the RSS feed reader, or click on the site’s URL to go there.

I can’t go into very much detail into any one feed reader in this article, because this is just an overview and introduction. I’ve listed one or two common and easy feed readers below for various platforms below to get you started.

For the most readers, after installation, you should be able to drag the RSS feed address to your RSS reader.

Finding the RSS feed address

RSS Feed IconMost websites have a prominent orange RSS icon which is linked to their RSS feed address. Just drag the icon to your feed reader. Or right-click on the icon and select (depending upon your browser), “Copy Link Address” or “Copy Shortcut Address”. Paste that address into your feed reader.

If you can’t find the RSS address link, many feedreaders will automatically find the RSS feed address once you enter the main homepage address (such as http://digitivity.org/).

Windows feedreaders

FeedReader (that’s the name) is a free and open source RSS reader for Windows. It’s a very small download (2.7 MB), and it has a simple interface which is fine for RSS newbies:

Feedreader RSS Feed Reader for Windows

Feedreader RSS Feed Reader for Windows

Ubunutu/Linux feedreaders

Liferea is, like Feedreader, a simple and easy-to-use RSS aggregator. Just drag a site’s RSS icon to the Liferea window and it’ll create a subscription for you. Liferea is only available for Linux. Liferea is a supported application in the Ubuntu repositories. Click here in Firefox to install Liferea on Ubuntu.

Liferea RSS Fead Reader for Ubuntu/Linux

Liferea RSS Fead Reader for Ubuntu/Linux

Apple Mac OS X feedreaders

Vienna is a nice, full-featured RSS feed aggregator application for Apple Mac OS X which is also free and open source. According to Michael Ströck of the Vienna project, it is “is a completely native OS X application written in Objective-C/Cocoa.” The 2.4 version of Vienna was just released yesterday:

Vienna RSS Feed Reader for Mac OS X

Vienna RSS Feed Reader for Mac OS X

Cross-platform feedreaders

The advantage of a cross-platform feed reader is that you don’t have to learn a new program as you move from computer to computer.

Firefox

Firefox offers an RSS feed reader built right into the browser. When you’re at a site you want to subscribe to, just click on the RSS icon on the right side of the location bar:

Firefox RSS Live Bookmarks

Firefox RSS Live Bookmarks

RSSOwl

RSSOwl is a free and open source Java-based RSS aggregator that works on Windows, Linux/Ubuntu, and and Mac OS/X. It has a lot of features you might want after you progress beyond the simple feed readers.

RSSOwl RSS Fead Reader (Java-based)

RSSOwl RSS Fead Reader (Java-based)

BlogBridge

BlogBridge is a free and open source Java-based RSS aggregator that works on Windows, Linux/Ubuntu, and and Mac OS/X. It also has a lot of features you might want after you progress beyond the simple feed readers.

BlogBridge RSS Fead Reader (Java-based)

BlogBridge RSS Fead Reader (Java-based)

Web-based RSS feedreaders

Some people prefer web-based feedreaders because it gives them the ability to access their favorite sites’ updated content lists from anywhere.

Some popular web-based RSS feed aggregators include:
MyYahoo RSS Reader MyYahoo
Google RSS Reader Google Reader
Bloglines RSS Reader Bloglines
Netvibes RSS Reader Netvibes

What is Atom, and how does it differ from RSS?

Atom is another web feed format. It differs slightly from RSS. In the early days of web content syndication, there was a kind of rivalry between the two as to which would prevail. But these days, both exist in a kind of relaxed truce. Both have different advantages, and almost every feed reader supports both formats, so you don’t really have to bother with the intricacies of the two.


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