Despite the fact Radio Userland provides an integrated RSS news aggregator with its blog tool, it would appear that most Userland users, like most bloggers in general, don’t use this feature. In fact a number of bloggers don’t really know what that funny orange box in the corner of their blog is for, or how to use it. If you’re clueless about RSS, this post is for you.

What is RSS?

Basically, it’s a mechanism for publishing (syndicating) and subscribing to recent additions to any website — usually a news site or a weblog.

How Does It Work?

The RSS software tracks new posts on your blog, or your favourite news site, packages them all up in a standard format, called a feed, and sends them to anyone who has ‘subscribed’ to them. All your RSS feeds are integrated together, creating a kind of personalized newspaper. Some RSS feeds contain the entire article, while others offer just the headline, or the headline with the first part of the article, with a link to the full article.

How Do You Subscribe to an RSS ‘feed’?

First you need to have a news aggregator (sometimes called a ‘newsreader’), a software tool that collects and displays the feeds you choose to subscribe to. Radio Userland has one built in. The one I use is called Bloglines, but Feed Demon, NewsGator, and many other news aggregators operate similarly. They’re free, and each has slightly different features.

To subscribe to the RSS feeds for your favourite news sites and blogs: Go to the site and find the URL for its RSS feed — there will be a small orange box saying ‘XML”, or a link that says ‘subscribe/syndicate this site’. When you’ve found it, right click on the box or link and ‘copy link location’. Then go to your news aggregator and paste the copied link (it usually ends with .xml or .rdf) into the aggregator’s ‘subscribe’ box.

Some news aggregators, and RSS catalogues like Syndic8 will even look up the RSS URL for you — all you need to do is enter the name of the news source or blog, or its regular URL, and it will save you searching for the sometimes hard-to-find RSS link. Some news aggregators and channel builders like MyRSS can create a synthetic RSS feed for sources that don’t have one.

Why Would You Want to Subscribe to an RSS feed?

Unlike e-mail subscriptions, RSS feeds don’t clutter your e-mail inbox. News aggregators also give you more flexibility in what you subscribe to than e-mail subscriptions, and more flexibility in how information is displayed. And if you read a lot, it can save you time compared to browsing all the sources in your blogroll or Favorites folder. And it’s spam-free. But it’s not for everyone — some people prefer browsing serendipitously, or like looking at blogrolls and other sidebar contents (which don’t make it into RSS feeds) — and a huge backlog of unread RSS feeds can by intimidating, even tyrannical.

Why Would You Want to Have an RSS feed?

It’s another way to get your message out, and to find readers for your writing. It reduces the chance that your most faithful readers will miss some of your posts by forgetting to visit, or will see time-sensitive posts too late. Some people won’t even read sources that don’t offer RSS feeds, claiming they don’t have time. Dave Winer now offers a service to let you see who subscribes to your RSS feed, to complement your Technorati inbound links so you have a better sense of who your entire readership is.

Next Steps

If you want to try out subscribing to RSS feeds, to see if you like them, pick one of the free news aggregators, subscribe to a dozen or two of your favourite news sources or blogs, and look at the feeds once a day for a week. After that trial period you’ll probably either make your aggregator your one-stop shop for news and blog-reading, or decide it’s not for you and go back to browsing your blogroll or Favorites folder sites. And if you prefer your RSS feeds by e-mail, Bloglet can send them to you that way, too.

If you want to set up an RSS feed for your blog, unless you’re a Radio Userland blogger you’ll have to check out the instructions for your particular blog tool (they’re all different). Or you can simply provide a link to one of the services like Bloglines that create a synthetic RSS feed for you. And if this is all too complicated for you, Bloglet lets you offer your readers a daily e-mail digest of your posts (or your RSS feed) instead.

And if you do have an RSS feed already, do your readers a favour and put the link where people can find it. Mine is the little orange box just below the search bar, upper right. The URL is http://blogs.salon.com/0002007/rss.xml. Just right click, Copy Link Location into your news aggregator, and get How to Save the World delivered fresh to your door every day.

Photo of Davezilla’s cat Jade by Rannie at Photojunkie.ca. Why? Blogrolling is to dogs as RSS is to cats. RSS is more aloof. Well, actually, I just liked the photo.

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11 Responses to WHAT’S THIS ‘RSS’ ALL ABOUT?

  1. kuros says:

    i use crayon.net no rss it is great and been around for years

  2. thanks so much for this informative step-by-step guide! Jyte is a great, free RSS reader that reads all RSS versions and Atom, imports OPML files (the lists of RSS feeds you already subscribe to), and also performs keyword searches (any blog or news article that mentions “dave pollard”, for instance). It’s very user-friendly for those of you who are a little scared by acronyms. It’s also small and fast. You can read more info at my blog, http://www.cafemama.com...

  3. kara says:

    The online reader Blogline is Grrrrrrrrrreat!

  4. zdanev says:

    Check out NewzSpider. It is a simple RSS (and soon ATOM) aggregator. Free to try.

  5. cs says:

    I switched to Bloglines after using Amphetadesk for a while. Much prefer Bloglines, which gives me an email address so that I can get newsletters through my aggregator and leave other email addresses for more personal correspondence

  6. blinger says:

    i use bloglines and swear by it. RSS is the best thing, I can read all the blogs/news sources I want from one site. If i want to commwent then I visit and leave a comment.

  7. Deb says:

    Hmm. I subscribe to your feed through Bloglines and yet I am not listed in the tool that shows who subscribes to you.

  8. Sherri says:

    I totally LOVE RSS feeds. I’ve found I’m able to read MUCH more of what I *choose* to read because I’m not wasting time loading sites manually just to see if they’ve added anything new. They’re also much better than newsletters IMO…no spam!I will NOT use an aggregator that uses IE as their viewer. Also, I won’t pay for one. I was able to get BottomFeeder to work a few times on my win98se, but after a few times, it wouldn’t open on my pc anymore. I checked out the Jyte that was triple posted, no about/features links or even an email/forum link! If I ever upgrade to an OS that has .NET installed already, I might try SharpReader.So I tried browser aggregators, and prefer them to a DL’d program. Feedster is OK except each feed is on it’s own seperate page. When I found Bloglines, I’ve not looked back; it uses frames in a good way. It allows us to make folders to catgorize/neaten things. They also allow us an “email address” with our user name that we can subscribe to 90s newletters that don’t have a newsfeed as an option (only works with newsletters that have a confirmation LINK, not the ones that require you to mail an empty email back). I wish I could force my folders to appear in the order I want, that’s my only complaint.The article mentioned a few RSS generators for sites that haven’t installed software packages that auto-generate RSS feeds. I don’t like NewsIsFree feeds, at least not from their free service; their redirects fail half the time (probably due to my HOSTS file). I also don’t like myRSS feeds because: 1. the link is a redirect from their site that WON’T load…it just reloads itself over and over (at the time of this writing, hopefully they’ll fix that).2. There’s no excerpts of any kind, just a headline.I don’t know about the others listed in the article, either they work, or I’ve not subbed to any sites that use them to generate their RSS feeds.If your site doesn’t offer Newsfeeds, install software that will do it for you, or use a service that will (making sure they work, and allow excerpts or full feeds); your readership will probably increase, especially if you submit your feed url to update/collection sites. I know I look for the orange RSS button, or a syndicate/newsfeed link on any site I think is interesting.

  9. There’s a good list of all kinds of aggregators here:http://www.lights.com/weblogs/rss.htmlThere should be something there to suit everybody’s needs whatever platform they’re running on.@Deb : Your Bloglines subscription won’t show up there as “Share Your OPML” needs people to upload or provide a URL for an OPML file. Bloglines can export this information but you’d then have to save the file, register with Share Your OPML and finally upload your subscription list before it would show up. I know its long winded but it is an experimental service…

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone — this is very helpful. I’m delighted that this post has attracted so much attention — I thought it might be just me that was struggling to come to grips with RSS.

  11. zdanev says:

    NewzSpider is great aggregator. Give it a try!Download it for free from http://newzspider.com

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