September 28, 2006

RSS how-to: Get your feed on

by Amy Anselm and Bascha Harris


You might have noticed the changes going on around here. Red Hat Magazine's been paying attention to surveys and site statistics, and we know that lots of our readers use RSS. We published an article about RSS in March 2005. We offer each issue in RSS format, including our podcasts and videos, which are also uploaded (under Creative Commons licenses) to popular sites with their own streams. Now we're moving to a publication schedule that takes advantage of the rapid delivery and simplicity of syndication.

If you're already using RSS, you might be taking advantage of these things. But you might still be interested in knowing what feeds we like to read.

And if you're not using RSS? Read on. This article's for you.

What is RSS?

Depending on who you ask (and when you asked them), RSS can stand for Really Simple Syndication, Rich Site Summary, or RDF Site Summary. All three are versions of a standard format for sharing content. Information--like news articles, podcasts, or video links--is offered from many sources. The information is gathered by an RSS aggregator, or reader, in a format and arrangement that you control.

A good RSS aggregator can turn your desktop or browser into a perfectly tailored daily report of nearly anything that interests you. You can collect news from the BBC, live updates from the local weather station, and the most recent posts from your favorite blog (or magazine) in one slick interface. All the stuff you want to see, delivered to your browser, desktop, or even your email inbox.

Browser-based RSS

Want to take your reader with you absolutely everywhere you go? As long as you can get to the web, you can get to one of many online aggregators.

No login required. Want to see your comments in print? Send a letter to the editor.

The upside? Most are dead simple and many are free. In fact, if you've "customized" your Google or Yahoo! homepage, you're already using RSS. The downside? You have less control over the appearance and behavior of your feed, and features are limited to what the service offers. But for portability and ease-of-experimentation, you can't beat the browser.

Browser readers require that you have an active web connection, a modern browser, and a little patience. Features for online readers are fairly uniform: a list of subscriptions (the feeds you've chosen), a place to search for or subscribe to new feeds, and some form of tagging or categorization.

Here's a few of the online feed readers available today:

Google Reader

Have a Google account? Then you've got access to one of the easiest aggregators of all. Browse on over to http://www.google.com/reader/ and log in. Follow the directions to search for and subscribe to feeds, news outlets, or topics that interest you. There's only one drawback to using Google--if you don't already have an account, you'll need to seek out someone who can give you one. Google's viral marketing plan hasn't reached all the corners of the world... yet.

My Yahoo!

Yahoo! also has an RSS aggregator--My Yahoo!. It functions much like Google Reader, with the same benefits and limitations--though it's easier to get an account, since you can sign up without an invitation.

Rojo

Another entry in the online reader race is Rojo. Though the service has a cool name, it doesn't seem as intuitive as some of the other offerings. What it does have, however, are fairly sophisticated ways of categorizing and tagging content--which results in better organization of your feeds. Setting up an account with Rojo is much the same as setting up Google Reader, My Yahoo!, or Bloglines. See http://www.rojo.com/today/ to get started.

Bloglines

Bloglines is a web-based aggregator with several nifty features. Set up an account at http://www.bloglines.com/ and, after validating via email, you'll be prompted to choose the sources and topics you want to see. One of the neat additions at Bloglines is their 'clip blog,' a way (like del.icio.us) to keep track of and comment on articles from your feeds. The blog and clip features allow you to save article links for yourself or share them with others as (what else) an RSS feed.

Google Reader, My Yahoo!, Rojo, and Bloglines aren't the only online feed readers--there are countless others. Here's a long list of other online news aggregators.

Plug-ins for your browser

All modern browsers support some form of RSS aggregation. The Firefox add-ons website has nearly a hundred news readers available for download. Many interact with the 'Live Bookmark' function already in place.

To make a live bookmark, point your Firefox browser at a website you know has an RSS feed--like Red Hat Magazine. The orange RSS icon will appear in the navigation bar, to the right of the URL. (The icon could also appear in the lower right corner of your browser window.) Clicking on the icon will allow you to make a live bookmark of the site's RSS feed. It acts just like any other bookmark, and even shows up in the bookmark file. When you click on it, it will display a list of the most recent articles coming from that feed.

Live bookmarking is simple--nothing to install, no third-party involvement. A wickedly complex bookmarks file could help with organization, but it's not nearly as robust or practical as having software for the task. That's where the plug-ins come in. RSS Ticker, for example, takes the live bookmarks and plugs them into a pop-up news ticker that puts the latest info right into your browser window. To see how it looks, check out their screenshots.

Apple's Safari browser also has RSS set up right from the start. It works almost identically to Firefox's live bookmarking--right down the the RSS icon to the right of the web address. The only difference? Safari's RSS icon is blue.

Desktop apps

If you want the most control over your feeds, and have the time or money to invest, there are applications that can be installed directly on your desktop. Several companies provide software and support for individuals or for a corporate audience. Feedburner is a popular choice. Some applications integrate with existing desktop features, like the news readers available for OSX's Dashboard. Look around for a 'plugins,' 'extensions,' or 'updates' option in the menu of your favorite desktop toy. You'll likely find any RSS-powered features lurking there.

The most powerful and flexible readers are probably the stand-alone applications. There are readers for every audience, with interfaces that range from very bare bones to professionally smooth. Free download services like Tucows offer many RSS readers at little or no cost.

BlogBridge

One of the free (and open source) stand-alone RSS-reading applications is BlogBridge. Installation is straightforward--you can find versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Once installed and registered via email, the set-up agent asks for a list of keywords--topics and names that interest you. You can set up your feeds, organize them into groups, and rank topics and articles so they display in order of preference. BlogBridge has by far the most customizable interface, with a variety of available themes (and the advantage of open source: the ability for interested users to make more).

RSS in your inbox

For many people (geeks and non-geeks alike), email is a primary means of communication. It's the first place you log in each morning, and the last check-in before bedtime. Why not send your news there?

Services like Rmail allow you to send individual feeds to your inbox. Applications like rss2email allow you to do the same from your desktop. With RSS-to-email, the problem again becomes one of scale. Careful management of email filters and folders will help organize the information.

You could also be extra tricky and point Rmail at the feed generated by Blogline's clip blog. Then you'd get the articles you selected from your feed that day for later reading in your email client.

Can't get enough of this information age customization? You can aggregate podcasts with applications like Juice.

Feed me!

You've got a reader set up, and you want to test it out. You can find feeds easily at many websites by looking for the feed icon in your browser, but how do you search for new feeds or for feeds that don't make the icon appear?

Again, you've got options. Many aggregators have some kind of feed search function--and several go further and allow you to search by topic, author, rating, or tag.

You can also hunt around on your favorite site. Most who offer RSS will point to it somewhere on their homepage, often with a bright orange icon that is labelled 'RSS' or 'XML.' Some, like the BBC, also have instructions on how to use their feeds.

Need a place to start? The Red Hat Magazine staff has a few feeds we recommend.

Customization and filtering

Once you've set up your aggregator and loaded it with all your favorite resources, the problem then becomes one of scale. There's more great information being produced every day, and soon 10 feeds turn into 20, then 50, then hundreds. How do you navigate this firehose-sized stream of information?

Again, the tools are in place--or being developed--for almost all the applications and sites mentioned. Some--like Rojo--use tags. Each news feed has tagged its articles with relevant search terms, and users can weight the tags according to their own interests. Preferred topics bubble to the top of the list.

Many feed providers help with information sorting by offering a variety of feeds, each with its own theme or topic. A newspaper, for example, might offer a sports feed, a business feed, a lifestyle feed, and a headlines or front page feed. Regular columnists often have their own feeds or blogs with feeds.

The simple categorization systems at Bloglines and BlogBridge let you create your own hierarchies. Put all your news in one category, or group your feeds in "work" and "home" folders. Put your "must reads" at the top, and always have them right at hand. There are infinite ways to set up a stream, so with some tinkering, it's bound to fit your preferences perfectly.

Making your own RSS feeds

RSS and other syndication standards (like Atom*) make it possible for users to share their information with their audience almost instantaneously. You don't have to wait for them to come back and re-visit your website. If you run a blog, it's likely that the software you use supports feed generation. This means that every time you publish a blog entry, it adds that information to your feed, and anyone who subscribes to it is automatically updated.

To see if your blog or website is producing RSS, load the main page in a browser and check for the RSS icon. If it's there, you have a feed and can subscribe to it to see what your readers see.

If you're not producing RSS and want to, you can switch to a blog host that does provide RSS. Or, if you really want to get your hands dirty, you can write your own RSS file.

Still have questions? That's ok, so did our some of our editors. Rather than make the article longer than it already was, we opted to publish an RSS Q&A where we answer the questions our RSS newbies (and some of our readers) have. Don't see your question there? Post a comment and ask, and we'll get back to you.

*RSS isn't the only feed game in town. Another format, Atom, is used by many web giants, including Google. Some sites use both Atom and RSS syndication--and blog software will often produce feed files of both types automatically. Some also consider Atom vs. RSS the new Mac vs. PC.

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