RSS & How to Use It (part 1)

Have you ever read an article, intended to explain RSS in simple terms that, begins well, but soon descends into confusing jargon or information overload?

If so, take heart, I was in the same place a few months ago.

Often the best way to understand something, is to use it. RSS is no exception.

So rather than try and create a definitive explanation of RSS, this article will tell you how to use it. I guarantee once you've done so, everything will that much clearer.

If a website you visit utilizes RSS, there are a number of ways it will communicate this.

The most common way is to show a little orange button with the letters XML.

Alternatively, you may see words such as "ATOM", "RSS", "Site Feed" or variations on these.

What they have in common is that they will link to a webpage that, in most browsers, looks like gibberish.

It doesn't matter one way or another, what is important is the address of the web page they link to.

To demonstrate, I will relate how to read a site feed for my website, The Nettle Blog. Don't confuse RSS with blogs (web logs). They are two separate concepts. The only reason you see them together so often, is that blogs are the perfect website to take advantage of site feeds. More on that later. Here we go?

Click on this link to go the site feed for The Nettle Blog. Ignore the content in the window, just make a note of the URL in the web address bar. It should read: http://feeds.feedburner.com/thenettle

Now you've got the web address for the site feed, keep it safe somewhere. You'll need it again in a moment.

The next step is to use an RSS reader to make sense of the site feed. There are lots of these available and if you are a heavy user you would probably want to purchase a nice piece of software.

But to begin with, start with something simple and free. Start with Bloglines.

Go to www.bloglines.com/register/ and create a new account.

From the "My Feeds" section of your account you can add new site feeds you want to keep track of.

Select "ADD", enter the URL you copied and hit "Subscribe". You can preview the results, but skip that stage for now. Select "Subscribe" again and the title of the site feed will be transferred to the left-hand window.

Well done. You have now subscribed to your first RSS feed.

To read it just click on the title and you can view all the messages in that feed within a selected time period. The feed will most likely record news related to the website the feed belongs to.

In this instance, the site feed to The Nettle Blog records each new entry to my blog. If you find something of interest, most entries have a clickable link you can follow.

Anytime you find a website you like with a site feed, make a note of the URL for that site feed and add it to your Bloglines folder.

Now comes the clever bit.

In the left-hand column of your account is an "Extras" list. Select Download Notifier and choose the correct file to download the Bloglines Notifier This file is only 100k so any half-decent connection should complete the download in just a few seconds.

If the download is successful, you should see a small, blue icon with the letter "B". Double-clicking it will short-cut you to Bloglines.

Right-click on the icon and you can adjust the settings. Specify how often you want Bloglines to check messages for you.

When Bloglines checks your site feeds and finds that one or more have been updated, a little chime will play and the Bloglines icon will show a little red marker. This means one of the feeds you have subscribed to has something new to say.

So there you have it. A spam-free, hassle-free way to keep track of websites you have an interest in. Providing of course, that they have a site feed. If they don't, ask them why not.

Part two of this article will show webmaster and ezine publishers how they can easily publish a site feed for their website and track the visitors, free of charge.

David Congreave is owner of The Nettle Ezine, the newsletter for the home business -- online.

David lives in Leeds, in the United Kingdom with his wife Leanne.

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