What is RSS logoFor too long, RSS was scary and inaccessible to most people. Even if you did get as far as knowing what it was, you would almost inevitably spend ages downloading, installing and trying any number of different RSS programs, until you finally found one that you liked. You might then spend ages configuring it, only to ultimately be left disappointed.
Not any more…
For the first time, I am happily recommending to non-techy friends that they give RSS a try, and all because of Google Reader, an increasingly popular RSS program that finally makes RSS fun and friendly for all.

What is RSS?

Webpages like this one are designed to be read by people – you and me. Some bright spark a while back decided that webpages should also be readable by computers. That’s how RSS came into being – RSS is a ‘machine readable’ version of a website.
In practical terms, this means you can use a computer program to bring this website or almost any website to you. You might ask… isn’t that what I’m doing already?!
At the moment, if you want to see if there is anything new on your favourite website, you visit it in your web browser – Firefox or Internet Explorer.
Let’s say you are a fan of Perez Hilton’s celebrity news blog, you might visit it once or twice a day to see the latest stories. You visit it pro-actively.
With RSS (and I will use Google Reader as the example) you can “add Perez Hilton to your Google Reader”, and all the new Perez Hilton stories will appear in your Google Reader instead. If you regularly visit more than one website, this can be a real time saver.

Why do I care?

Some cool features mean you can quickly scan lots of stories from lots of different websites in Google Reader and only delve into those that interest you. The coolest feature of all is that the stories you’ve already read automatically disappear from your ‘In Box’. A word of caution… Reading websites in this way can get addictive! Try it out and you’ll understand what I mean.
Not all websites lend themselves to RSS though, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. An RSS feed for a casual game website would not make much sense. What new information is being posted?
Typically RSS is best suited to news style websites or blogs where new information regularly appears. Indeed, some very active sites may have more than one RSS feed – A big news site like BBC or CNN has feeds specific to different categories of news. USEFUL TIP – If you find you are getting too many articles coming from a particular site in Google Reader, it’s worth exploring if a more ‘narrow’ feed is available from that site.
Searching for feeds to add can be done in a couple of ways. You can search right from within Google Reader itself if you know the name of a specific site you like, or you can keep an eye open for the ubiquitous orange RSS icon (pictured above) as you browse different sites.
If you spot this icon on a site you like, you can usually click it to begin a process to add the site to your Google Reader. To make this even easier, Google offers a free special bookmarklet thingy which I happen to use and like.
The best way to think about RSS is that “websites come to you”.
Some tips for use…

  • You can filter through new stories very quickly, similar to e-mail. A clever bit of programming pixie dust ensures that as you scan past a story using your scroll bar, you won’t see it again.
  • Some sites restrict the amount of information that they make available by RSS. So if you only see a headline and short description for a story, you will have to click the link in Google Reader to read the rest of the story. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
  • The ‘Star’ feature in Google Reader is like a bookmark, you can bookmark stories that you like and revisit them at any time. You can also search your ‘starred items’ to retrieve stories you’ve bookmarked in the past. This feature is very useful indeed.
  • The ‘Share’ feature is also cool. Basically it automatically creates a webpage (you can give the URL to friends), and they can see all your ‘shared’ stories. Super Geek feature! Cleverly, your shared items get their own RSS feed for broadcast.

That’s enough to get you started. In a second part to this article I will write more about ways the ‘Shared RSS’ feed can be used and the implications and opportunities it has for future social news networks.
If you don’t want to miss this awesome second part to the article, you might want to subscribe to my RSS feed… 🙂

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