Monday, 09 August, 2004

What's This RSS Thing?

I posted Thursday's entry about adding an RSS feed and installing an RSS reader without explaining what RSS is or why I'm interested in it.

RSS is Real Simple Syndication.  It's a file format that Web sites use to publish summaries of recently added or changed information.  It's not a human readable format, though, unless you're really into reading XML documents.  The purpose of RSS (at least in this context) is to support client programs that read the site summaries (called RSS feeds) and present the information to the user.  The idea is that, rather than using your Web browser to visit the dozen or more news and blog sites that you read on a regular basis, you'll employ an RSS reader to automatically scan those sites' RSS feeds, download the summaries, and let you choose those that you want to read.  As I said in Thursday's post, you let the news come to you instead of having to track it down.  Using an RSS reader will save you time and trouble.

Getting started with RSS only takes a couple of minutes.  First you need to download and install an RSS reader, and then tell it what feeds you want to view.  I'm using SharpReader, which is a very simple (and free) program that took less than two minutes to download and install.  The installed program includes a handful of feeds so that you can see how it works.  The only drawback is that it requires the Microsoft .NET Framework, a Windows add-on that is a 25 megabyte download if you don't already have it installed.

A reader that's been getting a lot of press is called Pluck.  It's an Internet Explorer add-in that will read RSS feeds, organize your favorites, and do lots of other cool Web stuff from within your browser.  I haven't used it myself, but a couple of people at the office have given it good reviews.  It's also won Editor's Choice awards from c|net, and ZDNet.  It, too, is a free program.

One other program that I haven't used but have heard good things about is RSS Bandit.

The first question most people ask once they've installed an RSS reader is "Where do I find feeds?"  You've probably seen those orange "XML" icons on Web sites, like the one in the left column of this page.  That icon is a link to the RSS feed for the site.  If you click on it you'll see what looks like garbage:  the raw feed in XML format.  What you want to do is right click on the link and select "Copy Shortcut" (in IE) or "Copy Link Location" (in Mozilla), and then paste the link into your RSS reader.  (Pluck lets you drag and drop the link.)  The RSS reader will read the file and show you the article headlines.  You can click on a headline to read an article summary, or double-click on the headline to visit the site and read the entire article.

Many major news sites like Yahoo, CNet, and BBC News have RSS feeds.  Wired, Slashdot, Plastic, and most of the other common commentary sites have feeds.  All blogs on and most of the other major blogging sites have the ability to publish feeds, although I think some bloggers choose not to publish a feed.  In general, if you're reading it on the Web there's probably an RSS feed for it.  Sometimes you have to search around to find the darned thing, though.  You'll find yourself searching the FAQ sections of Web sites trying to find the feed URLs.  RSS Bandit and some other reader applications have the ability to find RSS feeds if you point them at a Web site.

You really should give RSS a try.  It'll only take a couple of minutes, and I'll bet you'll be hooked.  You'll probably end up with the same problem I have now:  too much information.  There are ways around that, which I'll talk about in the next few days.

If you're interested in creating an RSS summary for your Web site and want to learn more about it, start with the article Introduction to RSS.