Read the Feeds!

[level: absolute layman]

So you’ve got yourself a feed-reader, eh? And you have no clue how to go about it? Well, let’s work this through step-by-step, through simple questions and answers:

1. What is RSS?

RSS stands for Rich Site Summary. Take each word on its own. Rich – Lots of information. Site – your web site :) Summary – smaller understandable chunks. Put them together and you get, straightaway:

“Lots of Information (from) your web site (put into) smaller understandable chunks.”

RSS also stands for Really Simple Syndication. To understand this seemingly difficult term, consider only the word syndication. Syndication means sharing or publication of material/resources into an extended network. The concept arose from cartoonists, writers and such newspaper related people ‘syndicating’ their content for different publications.

RSS is the online method of sharing/syndicating content created by us. It is an efficient distribution system, that allows you to ‘pull’ content , instead of ‘pushing’ it like email, for example. The flexibility of XML allows better content management and allows developers to play with the feeds in more ways than you can imagine.

Geeks, head over to Wikipedia’s RSS page, and BBC’s RSS page.

2. What are Feed Readers or RSS Readers?

Ok, now we have lots of information pulled from your site. The question is what do we do with it?

The immediate answer would be read! And that is exactly what feed readers do. Read your feed. Rather, they allow you to read the feed.

A feed reader the XML equivalent of a browser. A regular browser reads HTML code and displays the information between the HTML tags, as per the formatting defined in the tags. Feed readers read XML information and display the content between XML tags.

This explanation over-simplifies the RSS/XML concept, but is good enough for understanding purposes, I think.

3. How do I use a Feed Reader (RSS Reader)

Like a browser!

The URL/Location/Address bar of a browser allows you to navigate to a site. Similarly, you point the feed-reader to an RSS feed published by a site. Usaully feeds are publisehed in .xml format, but with user-friendly software like Feed Blitz or FeedBurner (I use this for my site) the feed address can be a lot simple to remember.

Here’s the process to add a blog/website feed into your reader:

  1. Look for a link/button called “Add feed“. An input box asking for the feed address will appear.
  2. Enter the feed address in this input box. For example, the feed address for this blog is:http://feeds.feedburner.com/42quirks
  3. The reader will then fetch the contents of the feed (article, individual posts, etc.) and allow you to read the contents online or offline, based on the kind of reader (Web-based or Desktop-based) that you are using.

You’re done!

4. Ok, so I’ve added a feed. What next?

Well, nothing actually.

That’s the beauty of it. With a feed reader, you no longer have to visit the blog for updates all the time. Every time a new post is published, it appears in your feed reader automatically. You can simply read the updated feed (i.e new posts) from inside the reader. You only need to visit the blog if you want to leave a comment.*

You can also chunk your feeds together in logical groups for better reading experience. For instance, some of the categories I user are as generic as ‘humor’, ‘tech-blogs’, ‘poetry’ etc. or quite personal like ‘blogs-of-friends’. You have the liberty to name yours the way you want.

Such chunking is permitted by all readers, though each reader names it differently. Some call it folders, others call it categories, yet others call it channels. The essence of all these terms remains the same – a user-created logical chunk of feeds.

5. What if I can’t connect to the Internet all the time?

Work Offline!

No, I am not kidding. There are desktop-based feed readers, too.A desktop-based reader is a program that runs from your system and polls the internet for feeds whenever you connect to the internet. Akin to an email client, these feed readers connect online and (literally) download entire updated feeds to your local machine.

Those of you who use Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express or Thunderbird at work, might know what I am talking about. The workings of a web-based and desktop-based feed readers are the same as web-based and desktop-based email clients. So you are not entirely on unfamiliar territory there.

6. Which RSS Reader should I go for?

There are lot of arguments across the web regarding this one. I personally prefer web-based readers, since I work on different machines at home and work. A web-based reader allows me to keep a track of my feeds in these circumstances, just as a web-based email client.

Among web-based readers, I find Google Reader the best. With a wide array of keyboard shortcuts and the amazing speed that we have come to know and expect from Google, Google Reader beats everything hands-down, IMHO. Rojo and Bloglines come a close second.

Among Desktop-based readers, I haven’t tried many of them, but among those that I tried, Blogbridge (Java-based) and RSS Bandit (.NET based) are a good try. Attensa was interesting, but it crashed my Outlook once too often and out it went.

7. Questions?

Post your questions in the comments section. I think we can have a good FAQ setup here!

Cheers!

*Many publishers have an issue with RSS for this reason. Since most of the sites run on Ad revenue, publishing a feed means losing out on crucial page visits, and hence Ad revenue. Will Feed-vertising be the answer to all this?

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