What is an RSS feed?

Confused about RSS? Here's our guide to what it is and how to use it

With so much new content on the web being added daily, it can be tough to keep up with what’s happening online. There’s a number of different ways people try — visiting specific websites every day, doing Google searches, or relying on social media to keep them informed. One solution that sometimes gets overlooked is an old-school one: The RSS feed.

What is an RSS feed? It’s a technology that has influenced many modern internet tools you’re familiar with and its more streamlined, algorithm-free format could make it your next great tool for reading what you want online.

What is RSS?

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RSS stands for “really simple syndication,” or, depending on who you ask, “rich site summary.” At their heart they are just simple text files with basic updated information — news pieces, articles, that sort of thing. That stripped-down content is usually plugged into what is called a “feed reader” or an interface that quickly converts the RSS text files into a stream of the latest updates from around the web.

As internet content became more complex, so did RSS files, which quickly adopted images, video, and more, but still in a stripped down format for easier loading and compatibility across all feed readers. Readers usually automatically update, so that they delivers the newest content right to your device. Basically, this approach allows internet users to create their own online feed filled with custom updates from the sites that they like to visit regularly.

I thought RSS was kind of old. Is it still used online?

Yes and no. RSS feeds are certainly still present (more on this later), but they aren’t as dominant as they once were. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others have become the go-to option for following sites, watching feeds, and learning about the latest content. Other online options (such as Google News) simply aggregate full links to the latest stories, with algorithms to pick out stories you may like.

The result has been less interest in RSS feeds in the past several years. Online brands already have to post to social media for their marketing goals, and they may not want to take the extra time to convert content into a bunch of RSS files too. This is why a new blog or website may only offer “subscription” content by following them on social media, but no RSS feed. Google doesn’t even like to support RSS feeds anymore, and Google Reader is a long-dead endeavor. However, RSS feeds still have their place!

How can RSS feeds make my life easier?

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RSS feeds remain great for an in-depth look at a site’s new content—not just the stuff that gets pushed up on social media. If you are truly devoted to a site and want to see everything it has to offer, then an RSS feed is still the best way to make sure you don’t miss anything. This doesn’t work as well with all sites, but even large ones like ours can compartmentalize the feeds giving you better access to only the content you want. It’s a good alternative to social media if you just want the news and articles without all the baggage that comes with having a Twitter or Facebook account.

Additionally, these RSS feeds are often very easy to read at your leisure, and will update even if you are not online, so they are particularly useful for catching up on the news during your downtime. This has grown into a solid benefit with the emergence of well-crafted mobile apps that act as feed readers.

What are the best feed readers?

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Many different kinds! However, some of the most popular include:

Feedly: Feedly can be used for both entertainment and professional purposes (following competitors, keeping up on industry news, etc.). It has a simple interface with basic categories to collect individual RSS feeds, as well as a home page filled with the latest news from everywhere. This is currently one of the most popular feed readers online, although it has been subject to attack in the past.

Flipboard: Flipboard has won admiration for its beautiful design that looks particularly good on mobile devices. It’s a good choice if you want a more organic, ezine-like way to peruse the latest news from your favorite sources.

The Old Reader: It might sound antiquated, but The Old Reader name is merely highlighting its simplicity. While it still enjoys some social elements, its core function is in bringing you an easy to parse and organize news feed with support for tablets, desktops, and mobile devices.

What else is RSS good for?

The future of RSS appears to lie in very specific solutions for certain services. We are currently seeing RSS solutions (and in some cases solutions that just look like RSS) for things like YouTube channels, weather updates, podcasts, Reddit tags, and even Craigslist.

For example, it can help you stay on top of something you are buying. Let’s say you are 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.