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!