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Say hello to RSS and Google Reader

(Based on a recent speech I did at DirecTV Finance Toastmasters club)

If you read blogs very much, you’ve probably seen this symbol: RSS icon

In various colors but usually orange, this is the symbol for an RSS feed.  RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and it’s used to notify people and tools of new content on web sites. In it’s modern incarnations it’s also used to update blog content, but this article won’t talk about that.

RSS can really save you time – if you spend time going to multiple web sites every day to look for new articles, you could use RSS feeds along with a news reader (or you would call it a feed aggregator or RSS reader) to check all those sites at one time. If you run a web site, publishing an RSS feed of new and updated content can make it easier for your readers to keep up with your site.

RSS has been around for a long time; here’s a list of all the major versions:

  • RSS 1.* branch
    • RSS 0.90
    • RSS 1.0
    • RSS 1.1
  • RSS 2.* branch
    • RSS 0.91
    • RSS 0.92
    • RSS 2.0.1
  • Atom branch
    • Atom 0.3
    • Atom 1.0

Here is an example of an RSS 2.0 feed:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" ?>
<rss version="2.0”>
	<channel>
		<title>RSS Title</title>
		<description>This is an example of an RSS feed</description>
		<link>http://www.someexamplerssdomain.com/main.html</link>
		<lastBuildDate>Mon, 06 Sep 2010 00:01:00 +0000 </lastBuildDate>
		<pubDate>Mon, 06 Sep 2009 16:45:00 +0000 </pubDate>
		<item>
			<title>Example entry</title>
			<description>Here is text description</description>
			<link>http://www.wikipedia.org/</link>
			<guid>unique string per item</guid>
			<pubDate>Mon, 06 Sep 2009 16:45:00 +0000 </pubDate>
		</item>
	</channel>
</rss>

And here’s an example of an Atom 1.0 feed file:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<feed xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom">
	<title>Example Feed</title>
	<subtitle>A subtitle.</subtitle>
	<link href="http://example.org/feed/" rel="self" />
	<link href="http://example.org/" />
	<id>urn:uuid:60a76c80-d399-11d9-b91C-0003939e0af6</id>
	<updated>2003-12-13T18:30:02Z</updated>
	<author>
		<name>John Doe</name>
		<email>johndoe@example.com</email>
	</author>
	<entry>
		<title>Atom-Powered Robots Run Amok</title>
		<link href="http://example.org/2003/12/13/atom03" />
		<link rel="alternate" type="text/html" href="http://example.org/2003/12/13/atom03.html"/>
		<link rel="edit" href="http://example.org/2003/12/13/atom03/edit"/>
		<id>urn:uuid:1225c695-cfb8-4ebb-aaaa-80da344efa6a</id>
		<updated>2003-12-13T18:30:02Z</updated>
		<summary>Some text.</summary>
	</entry>
</feed>

Luckily, the only reasons to know any of this is in case there’s no RSS icon on a web site (there still may be a feed, read on for a great tip) and so you might see text like this in your web browser.  Most RSS tools identify the version of the feed from the feed itself and then act appropriately.

One of the most popular RSS readers is Google Reader, which you can access with the URL http://www.google.com/reader in any modern web browser. I love it because I can run it anywhere, and it’s free. You may have to log into your Google account if you aren’t already; if you don’t have a Google account you can create one using any email address, you don’t have to use Gmail. Once you log in you’ll be greeted with a screen like this:

Google Reader

A fresh, new Google Reader window

Now the fun starts – go to a web site you read regularly, let’s say this one right here; look in the top-right corner and you’ll see a purple icon that looks like an RSS feed. Click it and you’ll be presented with the option of adding the feed to a news reader:

Feedburner RSS feed for site

Feedburner RSS feed for site

Pick Google, then pick Google Reader from the next page, and voila! You will be dropped into Google Reader with the feed added:

Feed added to Google Reader

And here we've added the feed to Google Reader!

On the left hand side you’ll see all the feeds; feeds that have new articles are in bold and have the number of new articles next to the feed name:

Feed added to Google Reader

Feed added to Google Reader indicating where to find unread count

You can pick one of the feeds on the left and the content will show up on the right – click on a title and it will open the RSS feed content for that article. You can click the title of the expanded content and it will open the article in a new tab or window in your browser.

Feed added to Google Reader

A feed added to Google Reader indicating how to read the entire article

You may be viewing your feed in expanded mode, seeing all entries along with their full feed content. I prefer list mode so I can see more titles, or headlines, at one time; you can change between modes with a link at the top-right:

Example of list mode and where to change it

Example of list mode and where to change it

You can organize feeds into folders using the Feed settings dropdown:

The Feed settings menu

The Feed settings menu let's you add feeds to folders, create folders, and delete feeds

I use this feature to make it faster for me to do my daily Twitter postings.

Many sites don’t use Feedburner – when you click on the RSS feed icon on a site like that you’ll see something like this:

A raw XML feed in a web browser

A raw XML feed in a web browser

In that case, you should copy the URL (the address in the address bar near the top), go to an open Google Reader tab, click the Add a subscription button and then paste that URL into the text entry area:

Adding a subscription manually to Google Reader

Adding a subscription manually to Google Reader

Hitting the Return key will add the feed to Google Reader.

If you don’t see an RSS icon or text link on a web site, try appending /feed/ to the URL, or web address, and see if you get RSS content. If so you can manually add the subscription in Google Reader

If you are involved in publishing web content, you should take a look at Feedburner, a very popular RSS feed syndicator and tracking tool: http://feedburner.google.com. It’s easy to set up a feed especially from a blog, for example WordPress – instructions can be found on the Feedburner site. Here is a screenshot of the entry page into Feedburner for my site:

The first page you see when you log into your Feedburner account

The first page you see when you log into your Feedburner account

And a shot of the first analytics, or data, page:

The first Feedburner analytics page

The first Feedburner analytics page

I use Feedburner for my website, and I use Google Reader to read RSS feeds every day – I like to run it inside Google’s Chrome browser because Reader uses a lot of JavaScript and CSS and Chrome handles that faster than Firefox, and Chrome separates it’s JavaScript per tab, so other tabs don’t directly affect Reader’s performance.

If you haven’t been using RSS, I hope you’ll start – it’s very simple and can really streamline keeping up with internet information overload.

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