What is RSS and how do I use it?

Some of the best online technologies never take off. Here are ten which didn’t make it, from Google alone. Then there are the services which are widely used, but few people other than their users know about them. Into this class I’d put one of the oldest web technologies, RSS.

I did some work with a group trying to promote RSS over 15 years ago. We were already converts, and couldn’t see why more people weren’t, especially in academic and business life. In the end, we just settled back and – like millions of others – just decided to use RSS without evangelising it any more.

What is RSS?

Put simply, any website can have an ‘RSS feed’, which is a text file giving a summary or simplified version of each of the pages recently added to the site. Most sites generate an RSS feed automatically if they’re run by a content management system. For example, this blog’s RSS feed is at www.bmon.co.uk/feed.

If you have an ‘RSS reader’ application, you can view the content of the RSS feed (the most recent pages on the site) in that application, rather than going to the site itself and navigating to those pages.

And what’s the benefit of that?

This is where things get good. Supposing you add a site to your RSS reader application. You see the latest pages on that site in your application. When you’ve seen the pages, they’re marked as seen, so when you open up the application the next time, you only see new pages from the site.

That’s useful enough. But the real power in RSS lies in adding many sites to the application. Now every time you open up the application, you see all the latest pages from dozens – or hundreds – of sites.

I have two RSS accounts. One is for work: I ‘subscribe’ to over 100 blogs and sites about online marketing, which is how I keep up to date with everything that goes on. The other is for play: in this one, I subscribe to over 50 sites about various interests from music to football.

I might look at the second account every few days. It will contain listings of maybe 50 or more new articles on the sites which I subscribe to. The articles are in an easy-to-read format which I can browse, and in that way I never miss a thing from any of the sites. How else could I do that?

How do I start with RSS?

Google may have given up on RSS a few years ago, because it couldn’t see a way to monetise it, but there are still many ways to use it at low cost, or for free. Some relatively newer applications, such as Flipboard, do much more than just read RSS feeds, and I’d highly recommend trying them out. I think the best standard RSS reader out there is Feedly, or you can use a combination of an RSS reading service like that and a nicer front-end (I use Reeder on Mac/iOS).

If you feel you ought to be monitoring what’s new on certain websites, or you just want to do so for pleasure, RSS is the best method. I know some sales and marketing managers in competitive sectors have an RSS account set up to bring together additions from all of their competitors’ sites which support the format. Most sites do. One company I know, which is a distributor for many brands, uses an RSS reader to consolidate announcements from all of the companies it sells for (you’d think they’d be in the loop, but it’s amazing what slips through the net).

RSS might not be a new technology, or a glamorous one, but every day, people discover it and wonder how they coped without it.