RSS for the Masses

Thought I’d write about RSS since I use it a lot and love it, but few of my friends even know what it is. You’ve all seen the RSS icon, in fact, if you’re reading this there’s one on this page somewhere and if clicked, will give you the RSS feed for this blog.

First, RSS is really simple. The acronym stands for just that: Really Simple Syndication. Nothing too intimidating about it. What does syndication mean? One of the definitions given by TheFreeDictionary.com is “A loose affiliation of gangsters in control of organized criminal activities,” so maybe that’s why RSS sounds intimidating. Sorry, it has nothing to do with gangsters. Syndication in the RSS sense means a “feed,” the basis of syndication or feeds being that they track changes to web content via XML language rather than HTML. Sorry about the acronyms, but I promise, it is simple. And you don’t have to understand all this stuff, because I don’t and it works.

To take advantage of RSS feeds you need to use a feed reader such as Google Reader or Outlook that accumulates content from whatever webpage you’re following. After subscribing to a page, it’s a live feed to your reader; you won’t need to constantly refresh your page to check for new content. It will automatically pop in whenever changes are made or new content is posted. This process is not bandwidth intensive, even though you might think that all this checking and automation must consume a lot of your connection speed. The majority of web sites are configured to send a ping to all RSS subscriptions every time there is an update. Google Reader, or Outlook, gets this ping and responds by updating their page via an XML stream (for those concerned about speed, an XML transfer consumes approx. 1/30th of the bandwidth used by an HTML page load). In summary, reading web content via RSS reader consumes far less bandwidth and automatically updates without loading and reloading pages looking for changes.

To subscribe to an RSS feed, click the RSS button on the page you want to subscribe to. Copy the URL and paste it into the Add Subscription field on your Google Reader page. Now you can discretely read content from hundred of news sites or blogs all at one place without loading a single web page.

It can also be used in widgets, Excel spreadsheets, and Word documents. The sidebars of this blog are largely made up of RSS feeds. The Amazon Kindle list is simple an RSS link to the list on Amazon.com, the Facebook one is an RSS to my status field, and the list of favorite blogs are all fed in live via RSS. Pretty cool and efficient. (The weather and webcam feeds are Javascript, which is a little techier than RSS.) RSS is also easy to use in a spreadsheet, for instance, in a portfolio sheet market prices and interest rates can be easily linked so they are updated in real-time. But I promised to keep it simple…

I use RSS for tracking stuff that I click a lot. If this sounds vague, think about it a moment longer. Suppose you go to eBay every day and search for the same item. Subscribe to the RSS feed from your search results in eBay. That’s it, now you can scroll down through eBay’s list of your search in Google Reader without going to eBay and waiting for their search engine. Have multiple searches you do? Subscribe to all of them, that way they’ll all be in grouped on Reader’s page. I subscribe to Craigslist computers, electronics, house-shares, and furniture feeds. I get up-to-the-minute content without navigating all over the internet trying to find it.

A note on Google Reader: Reader starts with a bunch of default feeds already loaded. You probably want to delete a lot of the default ones to eliminate the thousands of new articles you’ll get daily. There are tags and folders within Reader to categorize stuff if you’re a power-user. Skip the folders and organization for now and stick with KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

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