Canadian Politics from Canada's Centre

Sunday, June 11, 2006

RSS How-to User Guide and Explanation

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Here's a how-to user guide for RSS (Really Simply Syndication), which I think you, dear readers, will be interested in. RSS helps you to easily keep current news sources (MSM, blogs, etc.) of your choosing.

This how-to guide has two parts. First, I'll explain how to use RSS to get all your news in one place. Second, I'll show you how to create an 'RSS feed' that allows others to get news from your own site via RSS. The first part is my own original content, the second comes from Yaro Starak.

I'd like to thank Yaro Starak of Entrepreneur's Journey and Small Business Branding for graciously allowing me to publish a copy (too long to call it an extract) of his guide here. The man is a small business luminary whom you should read if you have an interest in the topic.
Note: I'd also like to acknowledge PC World's article on RSS as a (secondary) resource that helped me write this. I haven't copied anything from there though.

First, let's consider how RSS works.

1. A site creates an RSS feed. The RSS feed transforms the site's latest news items into a computer code known as XML.
2. People who are interested in the site's content use RSS to sign up for these latest items (in geek terms 'syndicate the feed') as a newsletter form. Instead of the newsletter being transmitted through email, though, the XML is sent to the person.
3. To decode the XML back into human language, the person has a 'newsreader' program. The XML gets to the newsreader and the newsreader decodes it back into real words.

It all works like a telephone. The site speaks its new content into the phone's mouthpiece. The phone turns it into an electronic code. Finally, the person at the other end uses their phone to decode the electronic signal back into real language.

That said, let's get on with the how-to guide/tutorial. Here's Yaro's how-to on the topic:

The best way to learn is by practice and example so let me tell you exactly how I use RSS.

Feed Reading Software

At the moment I use RSSOwl which is software you install on to your computer. Like all software there is a learning curve to using RSSOwl however once you have subscribed to your first feed it becomes very easy. If you get really stuck try the help menu or check the website out for guidelines.

There are other feed reading software programs out there and a Google search for RSS reader will bring up many options. I tried three different programs and stuck with RSSOwl because it was free, light weight and functional for what I wanted. There are prettier and more functional feed readers out there and I’ll leave it up to you to choose your favourite.

Web Based Feed Reading

With a standalone software feed reader like RSSOwl you have to be on the computer you installed the software to in order to have access to your feeds. Because of this limitation many people choose to use a web based feed reader and the most popular is Bloglines. Bloglines works much like feed reading software except because it is entirely based on the Internet you can access your syndicated feeds online from any computer connected to the web. You can also share your feeds with other people or search other people’s feed lists to see what is popular.

Subscribing to a Blog

To continue with my example…of course I subscribe to my own feed, the RSS of this blog. At the top right corner you will see an orange RSS link button. To subscribe to my feed all you do is copy and paste that link into feed reading software or a web based reader like bloglines. You may also have to name the feed and strangely enough this feed is called "Entrepreneur’s Journey". The RSS feed link for this site looks like this - http://feeds.feedburner.com/EntrepreneursJourney - and if you click it you will get the XML output of this blog. That’s the stuff I told you about that you don’t really need to understand, but take a look by clicking the link if you are interested. Note that I use a special third party service called FeedBurner that adds extra features to my feed output and most importantly it provides me with statistics on how many people subscribe to my blog.

All blogs will have a link which you can subscribe to. It might be called Atom, or RSS, or simply Syndicate, but they all do the same thing. The reason there are so many names is because there are different standards to create web syndication services (much like the old BETA vs VHS video format competition). At the moment it appears that RSS is certainly winning the standards war so you will mostly see the orange RSS links everywhere.

Syndication is for More than Just Blogs

Blogs certainly started the syndication craze but it is well and truly breaking out now. I wouldn’t call it mainstream just yet since not many people know how to use it but most of the big web companies are making subscription feeds available for almost any content. Chances are if you are reading an article from a big site you can subscribe to a feed that distributes those articles. Just look for that RSS symbol.



The RSS symbol in question is in CCP's left sidebar and it says "feed" on it. Alternate to using the RSSOwl product Yaro mentioned, you can also use Bloglines, Google or Yahoo's RSS readers to easily subscribe to Centrerion Canadian Politics' RSS feed, and you can see buttons to add the feed to your Bloglines, Google and Yahoo accounts right above the 'feed' button.

To recap: RSS allows you to get all your RSS-publishing sources to keep you up to date with their latest content. You get to choose the sources. Once you've decided to subscribe, you can just seek out the RSS button, and add it to your reader. Finally, check the reader as often as you want, to read the feeds you've subscribed to. It's like getting a bunch of newsletters, really... so perhaps you might be interested in our email newsletter subscription. You'll get CCP's best posts, twice a month. Of course, we have a simple yet strong privacy policy that says we won't share your information with anyone.

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