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A really simple guide to really simple syndication (RSS)

The Internet is a big place. Really big. 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).

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 the information down to the bare essentials — usually the main text content, main images, or in the case of podcasts and video channels, the content itself.

Related: Need a new podcast? Here’s 100 of our favorites

By reducing the desired content down to just what you really want, you can enjoy it on a larger number of platforms without worrying 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?

Rather than paying upwards of 100 bucks for a DVR like TiVo, you can start using RSS for free — all you need is a valid Internet connection and a program called an RSS aggregator.

An RSS aggregator, also known as 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’re subscribed to, it instantaneously gets sent to your feed reader.

Related: Is Feedly Pro worth five bucks a month?

Typically, aggregators come in two varieties; they can be Web-based or desktop-based. There are also a number of programs and add-ons that provide RSS functionality to email clients and Web 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. Google shut down its coveted Reader service in July 2013, but thankfully, a number of new software options have come about since then that are more than capable of handling  your subscriptions. The most popular of these options is Feedly given its ease-of-use, robust compatibility, and the mere fact that many sites feature an embedded shortcut button for utilizing it.


Once you’ve installed an aggregator, aka a feed reader, you can start subscribing to your favorite sites. Generally, 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 ().  You’ll be hard pressed to find a site that doesn’t support RSS these days, though, considering most sites offer an RSS button directly alongside buttons you click for Facebook and Twitter updaes.

The aforementioned Feedly is Web-based, so it’s easy to simply point your smartphone, tablet, or computer to the site before logging in with your Google or Twitter account. The developers also offer an iOS, Android, and Kindle app, along with a number of desktop apps that work with its API, so you can browse from anywhere without having to worry about juggling multiple feeds.

For power users

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

Related: The Old Reader replicates the Google Reader experience, for a price

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 on the Web, a sturdy RSS reader is a must-have. Also, be sure to check out Digital Trend’s RSS feeds for some of the best content on the Web!

This article was updated on March 16, 2015, to reflect new and updated RSS-related software and technology — most notably, the unforseen closure of Google Reader.

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