aka “How I Stopped Surfing the Web”
All over the internet, little orange icons (like the one on the right) and invitations to “subscribe” to web sites are popping up everywhere. You may wonder what this is all about. RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication.” But what is most important is that it literally turns the experience of surfing the web upside down.
Think of how you go about browsing the web now. You might go to a bunch of different places such as news sites, blogs, forums, or maybe even more “social” sites like MySpace, Flickr, or PicasaWeb. Each time you visit these sites you check to see if there is anything new since the last time you visited. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. Wouldn’t it be nice to know before you go to those sites whether there is anything new waiting for you? That’s where RSS comes in. By using RSS to subscribe to websites you visit frequently you can make the web come to you.
One great analogy about understanding the concept of RSS that I heard recently is this: think about video rentals. Now days there are two main ways to rent videos. One method requires you to get in your car, drive to the local video rental shop, rent a movie, and then drive home to watch it. The other method, used by companies like Netflix, lets you decide what movies you want to watch, then Netflix will send them to you in the mail to watch whenever you want. RSS does for the surfing the web what Netflix does for movie rentals. You decide what websites you want to see and RSS sends them to you whenever they are updated! Cool.
Keep reading for instructions on how to get started.
In order to get started using RSS, let’s quickly talk about some definitions of words that you might encounter:
Reader – A reader is how you actually receive and read information using RSS. There are many different readers, including separate programs that you run on your computer and sites on the web that serve as readers. Readers are also sometimes referred to as “news readers”, “feed readers”, or “aggregators.”
Feed – A feed is a stream of items from a particular website. Some websites offer many different feeds that contain different items. For example, on this website there is a feed for all items, as well as feeds for each of the main categories.
Subscribe – In order to receive feeds in your reader, you must subscribe to them. Each different feed has an address, just like a web page would (http://blah.blah.blah). Most modern web browsers and feed readers will allow you to subscribe to a feed by just clicking on a link. These links will often use some form of the standard RSS icon: .
The first thing you will need to do is get an RSS reader. Some popular options are Bloglines, NewsGator, NetVibes, and Google Reader. Each of these work slightly differently, but to get started you will need to either download and install the program or sign up for the online service. Another option is to use the built in feed-reading capability of Mozilla Firefox 2 (or newer) or Internet Explorer 7 (or newer.) Firefox uses a feature called “Live Bookmarks”, while IE’s reader works more like a “regular” feed reader. For the rest of this example I’ll be using Google Reader, since it is my favorite reader and widely regarded as one of the best.
The first thing you’ll need to do is sign up for a Google account (if you don’t have one already.) It’s quick and relatively painless and also opens the door for you to be able to use other great Google services such as Gmail and Google Calendar. If you already have a Google account then you should be able to log in to the Google Reader site using your existing email address and password.
Once you’re set up with your reader, now it’s time to set up some subscriptions. Start off by surfing to some of your usual web sites and looking around for RSS icons or feed links. Often these links will be on the side or near the bottom of a web page. A neat feature found in most modern browsers is called “feed autodiscovery.” This allows webmasters to make it even easier for you to subscribe by providing a link to their feeds in the tool bar of your browser (see photo on right.) When you click on any of these feed links your browser will display a preview of the feed. If you are using Mozilla Firefox (and if you’re not … why aren’t you?) the preview page will look like this:
Choose “Google” from the drop-down menu and click “subscribe now.” You will then be asked whether you want to add the feed to your Google homepage or Google Reader. Click “Add to Google Reader.” You should then be taken to the main Google Reader window where it will show that you are now subscribed to a new feed:
There is also a second way to subscribe to new feeds. This way is nearly universal, and the basic process should work regardless of which browser or reader you are using. Follow the same instructions for finding feeds as above, but when you click on the feed link, copy the link text from the address bar. Then open Google Reader (or your reader of choice) and click on “add subscription” or whatever similar option your reader provides. Paste the feed’s address into the box and click “add.” You should now be subscribed to the new feed.
Now that you have the basic process down you can begin to add more feeds as you discover them during your regular web surfing. I’ve found that once I start to visit a page more than two or three times a week it is much more efficient to add an RSS feed from that site to my reader. By doing this I’ve discovered that I spend much less time sufing aimlessly and more time with content that I really care about. So get out there and start subscribing! Why not start now with a subscription to this blog?