What’s the Big Deal with RSS Feeds, Anyway?

Q: I keep hearing a lot about RSS, but can you tell me more, and why I should actually be using it?

By now, we’ve probably all seen that little orange RSS icon all over the web and we’ve been pitched many times by bloggers to subscribe to or possibly even “grab” their feed. But what’s the big deal? What are the details of this technology and why would someone want to use it to keep up with websites? We’ll outline some of the benefits in this article.

A Brief History of RSS

Although you’ll hear that it stands for “Really Simple Syndication” today, the acronym initially stood for RDF Site Summary, before changing to Rich Site Summary. RSS was an early (1999) attempt at syndicating website content so that it could be used on other sites. (The site it was developed for, in fact, was the My.Netscape.Com portal, which demonstrates that it’s not a particularly recent phenomenon!)

Today, RSS is a widely-used format for publishing frequently-changing website content—usually news headlines, blog posts or even videos—that can deliver that content to you through a software application known as a feed reader.

Benefits of Using RSS Feeds

There are some major benefits of using RSS feeds. First, they’re a great way to pull together a group of favorite blogs and websites and stay up to date on all new content.

Instead of having to manually go out and visit each individual site, you can have the updates come to you, all in one convenient location.

What’s the Best Way to Use RSS?

As far as the actual tool you use to subscribe to RSS feeds, there is no shortage of options. The different types include regular desktop software, web-based applications and even mobile apps.

If you’re already a Google user, you might find it most convenient to use Google Reader, the most popular web-based RSS aggregator. It has a clean, easy to organize interface and even features for sharing your favorite sites with your friends and discovering new content. Other options include MyYahoo and Bloglines, which offers features for local blogs, news and events.

Web-based readers are especially convenient because you can access your feeds from anywhere with an internet connection. Alternatively, you can use an RSS reader that you download and use on your own computer. These include Feedreader and Newsgator. Finally, there are tons of different RSS apps for iPhones, iPads, and various other smartphones and tablets.

Once you have picked your feed reader, you just need to locate websites that offer an RSS feed. (It’s pretty rare to find one that doesn’t these days.) Look for the orange icon or text to the effect of “Subscribe to our Feed.”

Differences Between RSS and Email Newsletter Subscriptions for Blogs

You’ll probably notice that many blogs encourage you to sign up for updates by email in addition to (or perhaps even instead of) RSS. This is obviously different, since emails go directly to your inbox instead of a feed reader, but there is actually often a way to turn your RSS subscriptions into emails.

Feedburner is a Google service that many bloggers use that provides an RSS-to-email option, allowing readers to sign up for RSS updates with their email address. When the blog or website publishes a new post (or more than one) it automatically turns it into an email and sends it to you.

This is different than signing up for a regular email newsletter, where the owner of the site can send you mail whenever he or she wants. Depending on the site, you might receive marketing emails selling products and services, or there might even be questionable privacy for your email address. When you sign up for RSS, however, you can rest easy knowing all you’ll ever get is a post notification.

If a blog or website asks for your email address to send you new posts, check to see what happens after you hit “subscribe.” If it is a feedburner.google.com page, you’re signing up for RSS-to-email, but if it is anything else (like Aweber or Mailchimp) you’re joining a newsletter.

This is not to say that newsletters are bad, and the majority of bloggers will not send you anything you don’t want to read, but you should be aware of what exactly you’re signing up for.

Hopefully this article has helped you get a more acquainted with where RSS is today and how it can help you. Finally, if you want a website to test it all out, you can always subscribe to our RSS feed!


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  1. I’m pretty turned off by feeds these days. Sure, I use Google Reader to keep track of a few of the sites I enjoy. But when sites use partial feeds instead of full feeds, feed advertising, or partial feeds combined with advertising (what’s the point?), it makes me not want to subscribe to the site at all.

    As a publisher, one of my biggest frustrations is with FeedBurner. My feed stats have gone up and down so often, I can’t take the figures seriously. A year or two back, they added FriendFeed to the stats, which made everyone’s subscribers go skyward. Since then, FriendFeed frequently disappeared from the stats, in some cases making a 60-75% drop in a publisher’s stats – only to be recovered a few days later. The latest is that I haven’t seen FriendFeed in my stats for about 3-4 weeks, so I guess they’ve been removed. Who knows though – there’s rarely an announcement to explain why.

    However, despite the unreliable nature of FeedBurner’s stats, I’ve yet to see any other site that does even a slightly good job of measuring subscribers. I’d love to see an alternative.

    Either way, I don’t think feeds have really caught on. Subscribing to a feed directly is mostly used by the blog-savvy, and the tech-savvy – not your everyday reader. When you can auto-post the contents to a Facebook fan page, it’s a lot easier for people to “like” your page instead of using a feed reader.

    • Hey Ben,

      Thanks for the great comment! I definitely agree that it’s frustrating a site displays only a partial feed combined with advertisements. I don’t really mind partial feeds by themselves, because I often like to see a summary of all recent posts and then click through to the ones that most interest me. (This is probably a product of the fact that I often abandon my reader for days at a time and let it build up…) I’ve actually found that sometimes when a site shows full posts and big images, it can be really hard to try to read in Google Reader.

      Feedburner stats are certainly unreliable, but I’m not aware of any good alternatives for RSS subscribers. (There’s a few in this post http://bit.ly/pGVnnJ but I haven’t tried them.) I do know that some bloggers often use email marketing tools such as Aweber or Mailchimp and set up an RSS campaign to auto-send new posts. This at least allows you to track in detail all the people who subscribe to updates via email, but I suppose Feedburner already gives you that list.

      I think you’re definitely right that feeds aren’t really catching on with the general population. And what value is a subscriber if he or she logs into GR once every month?

      I’d like to do a survey of bloggers asking them how they keep up with their favorite sites and why they choose to do it that way.

  2. I always mean to get on top of my RSS… but then it always falls through somewhere. Are there any social tools in RSS readers, such as being able to see which feeds my friends subscribe to?

    • I definitely know how that goes!

      Google Reader itself actually has social features on the left column in the “people you follow,” but I doubt that many people use it. I heard of a new service that does pretty much this, called BuzzBlaze, that is currently in private beta. Might be something to check out and keep tabs on.

  3. Really insightful blog post. I appreciate your in depth answer for a question. I like the Rich Site Summary for RSS than Really Simple Syndication.
    I have just subscribed to your RSS feed.
    Thanks buddy.

    • Thanks a lot for the kind words, Malathy! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and our blog in general. If there’s any other topics you’d like to see us cover, please let us know!

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