By: DigitalTrends

Want to know what all this RSS talk is about? Learn how to harness it and use it to your advantage.

If you are confused by all of this talk of RSS, RSS feeds, aggregators and readers, and are having trouble wrapping your brain around it, here's a really simple explanation of Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and how to use it. A word of caution, once learning how to receive the feeds on your favorite subjects, you may soon be annoying your friends with all of your infinite wisdom on everything. You have been warned.

What is RSS?

RSS is a notification system used to alert subscribers to changes made to their favorite web sites, blogs, music sites, etc. The favorite site must offer this free service in order for people to add it to their lists. It is easy to discern that the site is RSS-enabled because of the orange rectangular button that is labeled with either RSS or XML somewhere on the page.

An RSS feed is a text-based headline with a link, and usually a short summary, that is shot over to you as soon as it leaves your favorite news site's clutches. If you\'re interested in reading the whole article, just click on the RSS feed link, and you will be directed to the full article, simply and efficiently. Think of a feed as being pulled and delivered to you, as opposed to you reaching out to find it.

How Do I Read the Feed?

You may have noticed that when you try to click on one of the orange, rectangular buttons, you just get a squirrelly looking page of code. RSS is written in XML (Extensible Markup Language), similar to html. That's all fine and good, but why can't Johnny read the feed? Well, that's because he needs an RSS feed reader to make it work. Some readers automatically take you to the full article, while with others, you must use their application's RSS button. More on that in a minute.

Feed Reader Choices

A feed reader, or aggregator, is an application that runs in the background, always searching for updates, never sleeping. Currently, there are three types of readers – standalone, add-ons and built-in web feed readers.

A standalone reader is just that. It stands alone and processes your feeds for you. It is your news hunter and gatherer. A standalone application, such as FeedDemon, is customizable for your specific needs and hasn't already been polluted with links set up by someone else. You also have the ability to access your feeds while offline. The drawback here, is that it is yet another program that you have to open on your desktop.

Add-on readers, such as Pluck, plug right in and extend the functionality of existing programs, such as Internet Explorer and Outlook. Most add-ons working within Explorer enable you to set up your channels with a headline display area for easier viewing. Programs compatible with Outlook enable you to set up folders within Outlook. To read the full text of an article, click on the headline and Explorer brings it up. The upside, is that most likely, you already have Outlook or Explorer open all the time. The downside, is that if you have many folders in Outlook already or 632 bookmarks in Explorer, it may be a little more difficult to find your feeds fast.

Web-based feed readers are built right into a browser, requiring no special software installation. The Mozilla Firefox browser, for example, automatically enables you to add RSS feeds to your Favorites folder creating Live Bookmarks. Apple Computer added RSS support in the version of Safari bundled with Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. Microsoft also has RSS support in the works for IE7 for Windows XP.


Once you get your standalone or add-on reader installed, you're ready to start adding sites/blogs/music updates to your subscription list. Standalone readers, when launched, typically contain a toolbar and two or three window panels. You can organize your RSS feeds in the left panel with folders or categories. The other windows display channel information, title of the feed and the URL to the complete text of the article. You can change channel groups easily by clicking on the drop-down box beneath the menus.

Add-on readers utilize your existing program's capabilities. For example, readers working within Outlook make it easy to organize your feeds with a folder system that is familiar to you.

Many readers, as previously mentioned, already include preloaded channels for your convenience. Some are good, some are not so good, but you will definitely want to customize yours to suit your needs. Think of it as your own, customized daily newspaper, but without the paper and more often.

Programs, like Pluck, enable you to click on the orange rectangular button directly on the website to which you would like to subscribe. A dialog box should mention that you are about to subscribe. Others, such as Mozilla Firefox, have a small, red RSS on the program's frame itself, such as in the lower right corner. If you get the squirrelly XML code page, try looking around for your program's RSS button. You should get a subscription dialog box here as well. If none of this works for you, give the following a try. Copy the URL from the address bar, go back to your reader and select where you want to put that particular subject (Sports, Music, Anime). Next, select New or New Channel from the File menu. The program's wizard should copy the URL automatically, but if it doesn't, just paste it in there, since you were smart and copied it just in case.

Depending on the type of reader you use (and what type of news hound you happen to be) you can either be automatically alerted each time updates come in from your favorites, or you can wait and simply go to your grand list of updates to review at your leisure.

Why Don't All News Services Offer RSS Feeds?

There are three possible explanations for this. It's either a lack of technological prowess, lack of manpower, or i's because of the almighty advertising revenue. Many sites thrive simply on eyeballs and click-throughs. If you go right to an article via an RSS feed, you'll miss out on all of the eye-catching ads placed above the fold on a homepage that primo advertisers paid good money for. Don't cry for the advertising industry just yet. Leave it to those clever buggers and they'll figure out a way to fill the void. Google, for example, is right on top of it as we speak, testing out a beta version of a conglomeration between Google AdSense and Atom. Told you they were clever. Check out Digital Trends' own RSS Feeds and get your favorite Digital Trends Content sent straight to your desktop!

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