An Easy Introduction to Web Feeds

This article will help beginners understand a few “feed” essentials: what they are, how they work, and how to use them..

[ Icon: Standardized Orange Feed Icon ] So you are a little new to the Web. As you surf around, you keep noticing these little orange squares and multicolored boxes placed next to phrases such as these:

  • Subscribe via RSS
  • Subscribe via XML
  • Subscribe via Atom
  • Subscribe via Feedburner
  • Subscribe to My Feed
  • Subscribe to Main Content
  • Subscribe to Comments

..and so on. Although these invitations to “subscribe” come in many flavors, they are all basically doing the same thing: enabling visitors to receive information from the site without having to manually visit the site itself. By subscribing to your favorite sites, you can stay current with updated content delivered to the “feed reader” of your choice. There are many feed readers freely available around the Web. In many cases, you can even have feed subscriptions delivered directly to your email account. We’ll talk more about different types of feed readers here in a bit. For now, let’s examine a few different types of feeds and how they might be used.

[ Icon: Standardized Orange Feed Icon ] These days, it is very common for a site or blog to deliver a feed of their content. Providing feeds enables sites to distribute information far beyond the scope of their website. Using feeds, content producers may transmit many different types of content, including:

  • news updates
  • text articles
  • blog posts
  • audio content
  • video clips
  • headlines
  • weather
  • anything

[ Icon: Standardized Orange Feed Icon ] Just about any type of multimedia content currently available on the web may easily and efficiently be distributed using feeds. Using feeds, content producers are able to share their content with a wide variety of readers and applications, including:

  • news aggregators
  • online feed readers
  • offline/desktop feed readers
  • email accounts
  • web portals
  • aggregation sites
  • feed services
  • widgets/gadgets
  • mobile devices
  • mini-applications
  • just about anywhere

[ Icon: Standardized Orange Feed Icon ] As you can imagine, feeds have changed — and continue to change — the nature of the Web. By subscribing to your favorite sites, staying current is fast easy. In fact, many people subscribe to many different types of information, including:

  • stock market
  • weather reports
  • driving conditions
  • department store sales
  • global/regional news
  • software updates
  • hardware updates
  • product updates
  • lectures/sermons
  • just about anything

[ Icon: Standardized Orange Feed Icon ] As you can see, subscribing to feeds enables you to funnel potentially large quantities of key information into a streamlined application such as an online feed reader or email inbox. This process is referred to as “feed aggregation” and ultimately enables you to review vast quantities of content in a brief period of time. No more trying to remember which information is needed from where and when. No more manually checking every site on your list. Simply subscribe to your favorite sites and blogs and read the automatically aggregated information at your leisure.

Feeds are becoming more popular every day. Just about everyone provides them, including:

  • Major news corporations: CNN, Fox, MSNBC, BBC, ABC, etc.
  • Online organizations: Google, Yahoo, MSN, Amazon, CNET, etc.
  • Retail stores and services: GAP, Sony, Apple, Wal-Mart, etc.
  • Gazillions of bloggers, podcasters (audio content), & video bloggers
  • Online services such as Google’s News Search or Apple’s iTunes
  • As I said, just about everyone!

[ Icon: Standardized Orange Feed Icon ] To subscribe to feeds, you will need to choose a feed-reading application, or “feed aggregator”. Depending on your particular computer setup (home, remote, network, mobile, etc.), you should have access to many compatible varieties of readers from which to choose. Most are free, while others charge a nominal fee or require user registration to download. While checking out the various aggregators, you will see that they vary substantially in terms of usability and functionality. Some readers are bare-bones applications that require a bit of time to configure, while others come fully loaded with tons of pre-configured features and a million pre-subscribed feeds to launch you into action. If the idea of searching for the perfect feed reader scares the pajamas off you, don’t fret. Here is a hand-picked assortment of popular choices to get you started:

..and that is just the tip of the iceberg — there are many excellent feed readers from which to choose. Personally, I have joined the many users completely satisfied with Google Reader. Here are the reasons that I like Google Reader as my aggregator of choice:

  • Online service = accessible anywhere — home, office, remote, mobile, etc.
  • Lightning fast = user interface enables you to blaze through hundreds of feeds.
  • Easy organization = easy creation of categories and other organizational tools.
  • Feed display count = shows the number of unread feeds for any given category.
  • Easy to save feeds = add a star to any feed to easily save it for later.
  • Automatic upgrades = no need to fiddle around with endless software upgrades.
  • Searchable feeds = search through your previously consumed feeds for key content.
  • Many more key features = there are too many great features to discuss them all here!

Even if Google Reader isn’t your thing, the previous list may serve as a guide to help you know what features and functionality to look for in a reader. Don’t worry too much about finding the perfect reader. The goal is to get started with feeds — you can always change readers later!

[ Icon: Standardized Orange Feed Icon ] Once you have actualized a feed reader and familiarized yourself with its basic operation, you are ready to begin adding your favorite feeds to the menu. Although the specific process for doing this will vary according to your specific aggregator, in general, the subscribing to a feed involves a predictable sequence of events:

  • Go to your favorite site and click on the “Subscribe to My Feed” (or whatever) link.
  • Copy the feed URL (as displayed in the browser’s address bar) and add it to your reader.
  • Done! Your reader should refresh itself with current items from your new subscription.

And that’s all there is to it, really. It really is easy — you will be a pro after adding your first feed! Some sites make it even easier to sign up for a feed subscription by offering one-click feed services for many types of feed readers. For example, on certain sites, you will find links, icons or buttons that say things like:

  • Subscribe via Newsgator
  • Subscribe via Bloglines
  • Add to Google Reader
  • Add to My Yahoo!
  • Add to Yo Mama

..or something along those lines. For example, when are logged into your Google Reader account and encounter one of these “one-click” feed-subscription links, simply click the link to subscribe to the feed. It just doesn’t get much easier. On the other hand, if the feed subscription link simply says something like, “Subscribe to main content,” then proceed as before and copy/paste the link address into the “Add Feed” portion of your feed reader. Note that you shouldn’t need to worry about which format to choose for the feed. For example, if a site offers their feed in RSS 2.0, Atom, and plain XML formats, simply select whichever you prefer. Most feed readers available today are well-equipped to handle any feed format you can throw at them!

[ Icon: Standardized Orange Feed Icon ] Just for the record, here are some “loose” definitions for several common feed acronyms and terms:

  • RSS = It depends on who you ask: RSS stands for either Really Simple Syndication, Rich Site Summary, and/or Rockdale, Sandow, and Southern (Railroad). RSS is standardized XML code that is formatted for multi-platform distribution of textual information.
  • Atom = Represents the collaborative association of “Atom Syndication Format” (an XML-based feed format) with the Atom Publishing Protocol (an HTTP-based resource management protocol, also known as AtomPub or APP).
  • XML = a multipurpose code specification used to format markup languages.

Additional Resources