A reader asked:

What exactly is an RSS feed?And how does it work? Seriously computer un-skilled! Be kind…

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First, here is a definition from www.whatisrss.com:

  • RSS (Rich Site Summary) is a format for delivering regularly changing web content. Many news-related sites, weblogs and other online publishers syndicate their content as an RSS Feed to whoever wants it.

Since you no exactly SQUAT more than you knew before you read that sentence, here’s a little more explanation from the same site:

  • Why RSS?
    RSS solves a problem for people who regularly use the web. It allows you to easily stay informed by retrieving the latest content from the sites you are interested in. You save time by not needing to visit each site individually. You ensure your privacy, by not needing to join each site’s email newsletter. The number of sites offering RSS feeds is growing rapidly and includes big names like Yahoo News.
  • What do I need to do to read an RSS Feed?
    Feed Reader or News Aggregator software allow you to grab the RSS feeds from various sites and display them for you to read and use. Once you have your Feed Reader, it is a matter of finding sites that syndicate content and adding their RSS feed to the list of feeds your Feed Reader checks. Many sites display a small icon with the acronyms RSS, XML, or RDF to let you know a feed is available.

Still lost? I thought so. Let me see if I can put it into terms anyone can understand.

You have blogs. Blogs have content. That content comes in a predictable form that is repeated over and over each time you put up a blog post: Headline (or title), date, content. That’s an oversimplification, but you get the picture. An RSS feed takes that content and puts it out there in a stripped down, basic, organized and predictable format. An “RSS FEED READER” can then take that content, and display it because it knows what is a “title”, and what is the “date”, and what part is the “content” (the body of the blog post).

Those same RSS Feed Readers will then check for new content periodically and let you know if something new is available, or if you have an RSS feed being pulled on to your blog, it will display that new content.  Here are some common uses of RSS feeds:

  • People use feed readers to make a list of blogs they want to read. The RSS reader checks for new content and grabs it when available. The RSS reader doesn’t care about the format or layout of the blog where the content came from. It gets the organized content, and displays it in the reader.
  • Bloggers or website owners will retrieve and RSS feed to display updated content on their own blog or website. A good example is news.  I can get an RSS feed for a news website, and the news article or story will be displayed on my website automatically without me having to copy and paste it.

The down side to RSS feeds being used to pull content on to your blog is that it becomes DUPLICATE content which is penalized and given lower value by search engines like Google. In other words, if you fill up your blog with content from RSS feeds, even though it looks “fresh” to you, it really is just a bunch of duplicated content so don’t expect to see your search engine results improve. ORIGINAL and relevant content is the only real secret to getting your blog up the ladder on search engines.

Currently, the best use of RSS feeds for you as a blogger, is to provide a way for people to easily read your blog material using a Feed Reader. The downside to this is that they only see your blog posts and nothing else on your blog. You don’t get increased traffic stats, and any advertising or other content on your blog is never viewed.

It can be confusing. People even disagree with what RSS stands for. But, you should have a good basic understanding of it after reading this post.

Here’s some other useful RSS feed information from www.problogger.net [excerpts]:

What is RSS?

What-Is-Rss

RSS is a technology that is being used by millions of web users around the world to keep track of their favorite websites. In the ‘old days’ of the web to keep track of updates on a website you had to ‘bookmark’ websites in your browser and manually return to them on a regular basis to see what had been added.

RSS Changes Everything

What if you could tell a website to let you know every time that they update? In a sense, this is what RSS does for you.

RSS flips things around a little and is a technology that provides you with a method of getting relevant and up to date information sent to you for you to read in your own time. It saves you time and helps you to get the information you want quickly after it was published.

RSS stands for ‘Really Simple Syndication’. Many people describe it as a ‘news feed’ that you subscribe to.

I find the ‘subscription’ description helpful. It’s like subscribing to a magazine that is delivered to you periodically but instead of it coming in your physical mail box each month when the magazine is published it is delivered to your ‘RSS Reader’ every time your favorite website updates.

How RSS actually technically works is probably a lesson for another day but the key today is for you to understand why it’s good and how to use it.

Let me say right up front that I’m not the most technically savvy guy going around – but even I can use RSS. At first I found it a little strange to make the change from bookmarking to RSS but I found that when I started that I just couldn’t stop.

How to Use RSS

Get an RSS Reader – The first thing you’ll want to do if you’re getting into reading sites via RSS is to hook yourself up with an RSS Feed Reader.

There are many feed readers going around with a variety of approaches and features – however a good place to start is with a couple of free and easy to use web based ones like Google Reader and Bloglines. Either one will do if you’re starting out (I use Google’s Reader) – as I say there are many others to choose from but to get started either of these are fairly easy to use and will help you work out the basics of RSS.

Both of these feed readers work a little like email. As you subscribe to feeds you’ll see that unread entries from the sites you’re tracking will be marked as bold. As you click on them you’ll see the latest update and can read it right there in the feed reader. You are given the option to click through to the actual site or move onto the next unread item – marking the last one as ‘read’.

The best way to learn how to use either Google Reader or Bloglines is to simply subscribe to some feeds and give it a go. Both have helpful help sections to get you up and running.

Note: other options to tracking websites that you might already be familiar with include using pages like MyYahoo, MyGoogle and MyMSN.

Find Some Feeds to Subscribe to – there are two places to look for a site’s feed:

  1. On the Site
  2. In Your Browser

On Site Subscription
Over the last few years you may have noticed a lot of little buttons and widgets appearing on your favorite sites and blogs. Little orange buttons, ‘counters’ with how many ‘readers a blog has, links called RSS, XML, ATOM and many more.

They come in all shapes and sizes. Here are a few you might have seen:

Rss-Buttons

There are plenty more – but any time you see any of these buttons or anything like them it means that the site you are viewing almost certainly has a feed that you can subscribe to. In most cases it’s as simple as either copying and pasting the link associated with the button into your RSS Reader or clicking the button and following the instructions to subscribe using the feed reader of your choice.

Browser Subscription

Many internet browsers now have the ability to find and subscribe to RSS feeds built right into them.

When you surf to a site you can usually tell if it has an RSS feed by looking in the right hand side of address bar where you type in the site’s URL.

Here’s how it looks for ProBlogger when you’re using Firefox:

Picture 1-21

See the little orange icon on the right hand side? Click that and you’ll be locating ProBlogger’s RSS feed.

Using Safari Browser it is a blue RSS icon:

Picture 2-13
Other modern browsers will have similar icons.

To quickly and easily subscribe by clicking these icons you’ll want to set up your browser to do it with your feed reader of choice as by default they will probably subscribe you using the in-browser reader. You can do this by going to the ‘preferences’ to your browser and choosing ‘Google Reader’ or ‘Bloglines’ etc as your feed reader.

Once you’ve done this and have subscribed to a few feeds you’ll begin to see unread items in your Feed Reader and you can start reading.

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