Column: What Are Online RSS Feeds?


Updated: 11/7/2006

Q. I keep hearing about RSS feeds on Web sites. What are they and how can I use them?

A. RSS feeds are a very simple and convenient way to receive updated items from Web sites that you like, so you don't have to go trolling around to each site to see what's new. Think of it as a Web page that does your surfing for you.

RSS — which stands for ''Really Simple Syndication'' — is a kind of computer code that allows you to ''subscribe'' to various Web sites, which will then send you new headlines and blurbs soon after they're posted. Your computer will also occasionally check in with the sites you subscribe to for updates.

The updates will all appear in one place, which you can organize the way you want. The material from each site you subscribe will usually appear in its own section as short headlines with little blurbs describing what the item is. They'll also contain links you can click on to go to the actual site.

Say you want to see news from several newspapers or other news sources, airline deals, sports scores, your local weather as well as new posting from your favorite blogs.

You'll start by setting up a place to collect your RSS feeds — these are often called RSS ''readers'' — and choosing the feeds you want to get. Any number of Web sites will allow you to do this, including Yahoo Inc.'s MyYahoo area, USA Today's Web site, or other online destinations like Bloglines. RSS feeds can also be directed to devices like cell phones and PDAs.

J.B. Holston, the CEO of NewsGator Technologies Inc., a Denver-based company that sells software and services to manage information delivered by RSS, uses his RSS reader as a kind of customized online newspaper.

Holston gets news headlines from more than a dozen sources including the BBC, USA Today, The New York Times and his local newspapers, as well as 10 feeds relating to sports, others on politics, and yet other feeds on wine and travel.

''RSS brings the Web to you, rather than you having to go out and find things on the Web,'' Holston said. He compared it to comedian George Carlin's famous routine: ''I just want my stuff.''

The technology for RSS has been around since the late 1990s, but the phenomenon really began to take off in the last three years or so with the explosion of blogs.

RSS turned out to be a very convenient, easy-to-use and reliable piece of computer code that allowed devoted readers of blogs to collect posts from the rapidly growing population of bloggers, Holston said.

When a Web page is made available for syndication through RSS, its publisher will add a little bit of code that creates a capsule summary of what's on that page at any given time. When your RSS reader contacts the Web page it can send the summary right over, like a table of contents for a book.

Setting up RSS feeds is actually very easy.

Once you have an RSS reader up and running, just look for little orange tags on Web sites you want to subscribe to that say ''RSS'' or, sometimes, ''XML,'' and follow the directions that your reader software gives you. Your RSS reader can also help you browse or find feeds on topics you like. Mozilla Corp.'s Firefox browser also is able to automatically discover, read and manage feeds — a feature Microsoft Corp. added to its latest browser, Internet Explorer 7.

Most major media companies now send out RSS feeds to give people more ways to receive their information. USA Today is among the most active, Holston said, with some 100 feeds, including one for each of their columnists. Some newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, are launching their own branded RSS readers that support ads, hoping to generate revenue.

Eventually, much of the techno-speak may just disappear as people become accustomed to pages with user-friendly names, like MyYahoo.

''Hopefully no one will hear about RSS in two years,'' Holston said. ''RSS is really just plumbing. You'll just be subscribing to what you want, where you want, and when you want it.''

———

On the Net:

Customizable USA Today page: http://my.usatoday.com/

MyYahoo: http://my.yahoo.com

San Francisco Chronicle's customizable site:

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/newsgator/user/login

Bloglines: http://www.bloglines.com/

NewsGator: http://www.newsgator.com/home.aspx

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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