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A really simple guide to really simple syndication (RSS)

The internet is a big place, to say the least. With more than a billion existing pages and thousands more being created each day, there’s a wealth of great sites offering fantastic content free of charge. But with such a massive torrent of media being produced each and every day, it can often be tough to keep up with all your favorite websites. So, how do we alleviate this problem? Easy. Here’s a really simple explanation of Really Simple Syndication (RSS).

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What is RSS?

RSS is all about simplifying the way we view and digest content on the internet. Web pages are typically multimedia experiences, with multiple columns of images, text, and advertisements. An RSS feed of a page strips it down to the bare essentials — usually the main text content, main images, or in the case of podcasts and video channels, the content itself.

By reducing the desired content down to just what you really want, you can enjoy it on a larger number of platforms without worrying having to worry about compatibility or display issues. It also allows you to keep track of when new content is posted without requiring you to refresh the blog or podcast page every 10 minutes until something new appears.

How does RSS work?

RSS is completely free, which makes it all the more attractive to use. All you need is an internet connection and a program called an aggregator. Also known as a feed reader, the aggregator runs as a background application and checks for new content in what is called a feed. The feed is essentially a specially formatted file that typically contains brief snippets of content posted on the site that hosts it (although some will offer content in its entirety over these feeds). When the aggregator sees a new piece of content in that RSS feed, it will alert you to the change.

An RSS aggregator, also known as a feed reader, is a program that runs in the background and constantly waits for your favorite sites to post new content. When something new pops up on a site you’ve subscribed to, it instantaneously gets sent to your feed reader.

These aggregators can be either web or desktop-based. There are also a number of programs and add-ons that provide RSS functionality to email clients and browsers. Once you’ve installed a feed reader, you can get started.

How do I use RSS?

There are hundreds of aggregators out there, with all kinds of different interfaces and useful features, so finding one you like is just a matter of experimentation. The most popular of these options is Feedly, however. We recommend this for casual RSS users (read: most of us). It’s easy to use and compatible with a wide range of the RSS formats you’ll find on the web. The widespread usage means you’ll also find a shortcut button to add feeds directly to Feedly. Just look for a green icon with a left-titled, stylized “F.”

Feedly

Once you’ve installed an aggregator, you can start subscribing to your favorite sites. You’ll know if a site supports RSS subscriptions if it features an orange icon with a set of white lines running through it, similar to the image at right (). Just about every site offers some type of RSS feed, although you might need to do some digging to find the appropriate one.

Many web-based options like Feedly even have a built-in search function, so you don’t have to do any searching elsewhere. We were able to find Digital Trends’ general feed there, although getting specific feeds for our various sections still requires you to navigate to our RSS hub. Many of these web-based services offer apps, too, so you’ll be able to access your feeds on your mobile devices.

For power users

RSS can be used for more than just combing news, music, and videos. Sites such as Craigslist and eBay, for instance, support RSS subscriptions for specific service and item categories. Looking for a fridge, a welding job, or a three-bedroom apartment on Craigslist? Just type in your search terms and scroll to the bottom of the page.

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In the bottom-right corner, there should be a button that allows you to subscribe to that list of classified ads, allowing you to set up notifications designed to alert you when any new posts are published within a specific category.

In summary, RSS is a fantastic way to organize and consume the web with increased efficiency and ease. If you do most of your reading online, a sturdy RSS reader is a must-have.