RSS feeds (or “news feeds” or “web feeds”) are a useful way of keeping up to date with the changing content of your favourite blogs and other websites.
What is an RSS feed?
RSS stands for “really simple syndication” (or something else depending on which definition you choose to believe). Whatever, it’s not really important.
What is important is what they can do.
It’s logo (which as far as I know is unofficial but widely adopted) looks like the illustration above. You may have seen it around.
In the old days of the internet (a couple of years is “the old days” in the internet) if you wanted to keep up to date with changes on your favourite websites, you had to visit them regularly.
Fast forward a bit and now we have these “RSS feeds” which are, to put it really simply, like those “breaking news” scrolls you see on 24 hour news programmes. Except not as annoying.
The idea behind an RSS feed is that you “subscribe” to it using a program called a “news reader” or a web service like Google Reader. They keep an eye on the RSS feeds you’ve subscribed to and update every few minutes to show you what has changed on the site. Some sites update a lot (e.g. BBC News) and others update infrequently (like a blog).
Basically, to keep up to date with what’s going on in the world, you open your news reader and let it do all the hard work for you.
In a later tutorial I’ll show you how to use a news reader and Google Reader and hopefully in seeing feeds in action you’ll understand them a lot better. In this first tutorial I’m going to show you how to find RSS feeds for your favourite sites.
Finding an RSS feed
Depending on which web browser you use, the way a site’s RSS feed is displayed (assuming it has one, of course) varies. In this tutorial I’m using Apple’s Safari web browser. Bear in mind that I’ve customised my browser so it may not look entirely like yours, but the basic principles remain the same.
In the image above you can see the Design Studies blog. There are three ways to access the RSS feed here.
RSS badge in the URL bar
Some browsers automatically detect an RSS feed and present something like this (or it may be the RSS logo). Clicking on this badge, or clicking then holding, will start the subscription process – about which more later!
RSS links in the web page
Some web pages will also list their RSS feeds somewhere on the page. As we’ll see in the next few screen shots, how they do this varies so usually using the browser badge described above is by far the easiest way to subscribe.
However, you can see here that some sites have more than one feed! For the Design Studies blog, and for a lot of blogs, you can subscribe to the blog posts, and separately subscribe to the comments that people make. For the most part, you probably don’t want to subscribe to comments unless you’re particularly interested in a conversation on a blog’s topic. Unless you have good reason to, my advice is not to subscribe to comments.
Some sites, like the BBC’s news site, seem to hide their feeds quite well, which is odd. Apart from the browser badge, it’s not clear where the RSS feed is on this page.
Ah there it is!
Turns out, there’s a section at the bottom of the page alongside links for the mobile version of the site, podcasts and email digests.
One of the reasons why the BBC does this is because you can subscribe to different feeds for, say, technology news, news from Scotland, or from the USA and so on. You can also get a general news feed for top stories.
How The Guardian does it
The Guardian calls its RSS feed a “webfeed”. It also allows you to subscribe to different feeds for sport, business, education, breaking news and so on. You do have to hunt around a bit to find those options though!
More multiple feeds
My last example is from a blog about Apple-related news. I had to look long and hard for the feed links here but there are a few. I’ve pointed out feeds for breaking news and top features and, if you were to scroll down, you’d see different feeds for different authors. Blogs like Engadget allow you to subscribe to brand or topic-specific feeds (e.g. “iPhone”) or even feeds that give you everything except topics you’re really not interested in (again, e.g. “iPhone”!)
The long and short of it is that there is no standard way of displaying a link to an RSS feed. I usually use the browser badge but many news readers (see another tutorial) allow you to paste the website’s URL in to them and they will “intelligently” seek out the RSS feed for you.
Subscribing to a feed
So after all that, the simplest way to subscribe to a feed, once you’ve worked out what you want to do with it, is to click on the link or icon. If you’re using a news reader then the subscription process will be automatic. However if you’re using a web service like Google Reader you may want to right-click (or control click if you’re not using a two-button mouse on a Mac) and copy the URL as in the screenshot above.