What Is RSS and How Can It Improve Your Life?

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An ancient Web technology beats the pants off news delivery from social media. In truth, Facebook and Google+ don’t deliver true news. Social media content arrives late and at random; it’s not tailored to your needs and lacks organization. Many denizens of Facebook don’t know that a better technology exists that absolutely thrashes social media in efficiency, organization and utility. Just three simple words can change the way you use and consume information – forever: Really Simple Syndication, or RSS.

Functioning like a customizable, digital newspaper, RSS benefits almost everyone – from working professionals wanting to keep abreast of the latest in their field to hobbyists looking for distractions. But what does RSS do, how can it improve your life and how do you get started?

feedly and other rss readers

What Does RSS Do?

RSS simplifies, organizes and delivers web content, without visiting a website. Think of it like a customizable newspaper. The RSS experience revolves around two components: RSS feeds and news aggregators. Feeds deliver to the aggregator, also known as a “feed reader”. Aggregators come in three shapes: Mobile apps, browser-based interfaces and offline desktop clients. Some web services, like Feedly and AOL Reader, offer sync-support across both desktop and mobile platforms. In short, you can star, mark as read and open RSS content from any device – if you use a web service, it will keep track of everything. We’ve actually touched on RSS technology in an older article which you might want to read.

I’ve used RSS for the following:

  • Unsubscribing from email lists;
  • Reducing mobile data costs;
  • Receiving web content without going to a website;
  • Keeping informed on the latest updates from websites;
  • Starring, tagging and organizing by folders;
  • And a great deal more!

How RSS Can Improve Your Life

Let’s start with uncluttering the email inbox. Do you get dozens of low-priority emails a day? RSS can do away with these by storing website updates in the RSS aggregator. Then you can read them as your leisure. Alternatively, if you love a website’s content, but don’t want to constantly refresh the page, RSS can help. It’s just a matter of finding the RSS link, or creating one, and adding the link to your feed reader.

Where Are RSS Feeds Found?

An RSS feed is frequently marked with some variation on the RSS icon:

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RSS icon

There’s little consistency in how, and where, websites place links to RSS feeds. A minority of sites don’t even publish them! Additionally, some feed readers, such as Feedly, can find a site’s RSS feed, just by typing in the website’s name. For first-time users, I recommend heading on over to Feedly’s website and getting started. If you prefer manually adding feeds, you’ll need two things: First, an RSS feed from the website you want to follow and a news aggregator, also known as a feed reader. The user plugs feeds into the aggregator, checking it at their leisure, from any device.

When sites publish new content, they also include what’s called an RSS “feed”. A feed contains the text and images of the website’s content. They provide instant access to content without visiting the site. It’s extremely data efficient and loads quickly. So where do sites place their RSS links?

If you ever click on a direct link to an RSS feed, you’ll receive what looks like a wall of unreadable code. For example, here’s what you’ll see if you click on one of CNN’s many RSS feeds:

xml example

MakeUseOf’s RSS feed, which publishes through Google’s FeedBurner service, doesn’t look like that. It’s just a simple URL, set to output in XML. You can find the link by going to one of our site’s many subsections.

subsections

At the very bottom of the page lies the Subscribe link, which is hosted on FeedBurner.

subsections location at the bottom for rss

From within FeedBurner, you can subscribe to MakeUseOf via a news aggregation service, or you can get the direct XML RSS link and copy-and-paste into your feed reader service.

feedburner options for subscribing

Getting Started with RSS

To get started, just find a few RSS feeds for sites that you follow. For example, you can take MakeUseOf’s RSS feed and add it to Feedly by just cutting and pasting. Here’s an example of copying the RSS feed into a feed reader (Feedly):

feedly cutting and pasting

If you don’t like working with URLs, Feedly allows users to search for sites that they follow. Just visit Feedly and paste in the RSS feed’s URL:

feedly search for rss feed

RSS feeds can interact with Web-automation systems, like IFTTT. For example, if I wanted instantaneous updates on a particular website’s updates, I could make an RSS feed that shoots off notifications to my cell phone or email. Here’s a link to IFTTT’s RSS-to-email notification system. It takes about five minutes to configure, but after that, the service works perfectly.

IFTTT

There are three kinds of RSS feeds: Convertible URLs, FeedBurner-based and direct XML links. Many sites also offer multiple RSS feeds, separated by category. For example, CNN includes RSS links for sports, world news and more.

Convertible URLs

URL-based RSS require that you manipulate or alter a website’s URL so that it converts into an RSS feed. Usually just appending “/RSS” (without the quotation marks) or “.RSS” onto the end of a link will make it into an RSS feed. Reddit, for example, allows users to change their URL into RSS feeds. Other sites, such as YouTube and Facebook (get media RSS links), require more extensive alteration of a URL so that it functions as an RSS feed.

http://www.reddit.com

becomes:

http://www.reddit.com.rss

Once you have this link, it can insert into a feed reader.

I’m not getting into the complexity required in creating a Facebook RSS feed. They exist, but you should read this article before considering it, as it takes a fair amount of work. YouTube RSS links, which worked at one point, were recently broken by Google for unexplainable reasons. I suspect it has to do with pushing users into Google+.

Feed Readers (News Aggregators)

A feed reader stores and views the content of an RSS feed. Various flavors of mobile reader exist, such as Tiny Tiny RSS and Press. RSS readers loosely divide into three categories: (1) those that offer a browser-based interface; (2) those that offer dedicated apps or programs; (3) those that offer both access from a browser and access from software. Pretty much all feed readers which include a Web interface also provide hosting services. Here’s several RSS feed readers:

  • Feedly: Offers both a browser based interface and a software based interface. It’s also available on iOS. It features a hosting service that many mobile apps piggyback on and many hard-to-find features in the paid version. Check out my guide to Feedly for more details.
  • Press: Press, although a paid app, offers the best visual experience out of all the RSS readers. It requires another RSS service as a syncing backbone, though.
  • FeedMe: FeedMe is the most data and time efficient out of all the RSS readers out there. Consider using it for mobile devices, along with Javelin Browser.
  • AOL Reader: AOL Reader offers a lot of the same services as Feedly and it’s remarkably fast. I’ve written about AOL’s RSS service and it’s fantastic. A mobile app for AOL Reader exists – it’s similar in function to Feedly’s mobile reader.
  • Tiny Tiny RSS: If you want to go through the ordeal of hosting your own feeds, Tiny Tiny RSS is a great RSS reader, since it syncs with self-hosted services.
  • The Old Reader: This Web service also syncs with some mobile apps. It’s not as popular as Feedly, but it does offer one of the best RSS experiences on the desktop.
  • InoReader: I haven’t used this service much, but its users swear by it (read our review of Inoreader). It offers similar functionality as Feedly, including mobile app support.

feedly

Advanced Tips

If you do go down the rabbit-hole of RSS, consider some of the following advanced organizational tips:

I’ve written extensively about these options in my manual on RSS. If you find yourself wanting more, read MakeUseOf’s guide to RSS.

Conclusion

For those wanting to enhance their information gathering capabilities, an ancient Web technology will help. It’s called “RSS”. I’ve written before about the many features in RSS – this article introduces it to the uninitiated or those with only a cursory understanding of the technology. RSS might not be around forever, so the sooner you adopt it, the harder it makes it for companies to kill it off.

Unfortunately, the Big Data companies don’t like RSS. Google’s attitude toward it borders on the schizophrenic. On one hand, they invented and killed the best browser-based RSS client of the time – Google Reader. They offered RSS links to many of their products, such as YouTube – and then they began rolling RSS feeds back. While some sites, such as Reddit, embrace RSS, others fear it or attempt to deprecate it.

Does anyone know why a superior technology gets worse treatment than inferior technologies? I’m at a loss for words.

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Comments (23)
  • Joan White

    I use what came with windows 8. It’s called Readily and seems to be good

  • Swanny

    The issue I’ve found is I follow multiple sites, though my reader gets overflowed really quickly with updates. All it takes is not checking for two days, and you have over 1000+ unread items, which takes quite some time to wade through for stories.

    When you follow multiple tech sites for instance, you tend to find the same stories are re-published on other sites. However, some sites might publish stories on a particular topic that the other sites don’t.

    It’d be good if an RSS reader came along which could better handle a large flow of items and duplicate items.

    • Kannon Y

      Hey Swanny, thanks for the comment!

      I’ve found that the best way to deal with large numbers of feeds is to create folders, ordered by priority. On the feeds that you absolutely cannot miss, put them into a high-priority folder. on the feeds that you don’t care so much about, put them into a low-priority folder. Most feed readers allow you to clear out entire folders with a click of the button.

      Right now, I think all major RSS feed reader platforms support folders, including Feedly, InoReader and AOLReader. It should help. Thanks again!

  • Nahla D

    I miss Google Reader. It was the first RSS reader I had used. I use the The Old Reader now because the interface is almost the same with GR. They’re a bit new though, but they’re improving.

  • Mo

    tt-rss is where I went when Google Reader shutdown. I tried others, but I wanted to be in control of it.

    • Kannon Y

      You’re the first person I’ve met who self-hosted RSS feeds. I’ve been wanting to do it myself for years, but never really got around to it. Would you recommend TT-RSS or is it too hard to manage? Thanks for the comment Mo!

    • Mo

      It is very easy. I have been doing this for over a year now. Just need to make sure you follow the update instructions on tt-rss site, which is very straight forward, and the process is streamlined.

    • Kannon Y

      I will definitely attempt self-hosting within the next two months. I heard that OwnCloud offered some kind of TT-RSS integration. If my server works out, TT-RSS is certainly going to get an article written on it.

      Thanks for your help Mo!

  • Dick

    I actually use live bookmarks in Firefox and find that to be the most efficient use of RSS and my time.

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For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.