Do you have a favorite blog or website? Do you find yourself going back to check the same half-dozen websites over and over, hoping to find that they have updated their content, added a new story, or posted a fresh article?
You might be a perfect candidate for RSS — a form of website syndication that allows you to subscribe to multiple websites and view their updated content from a single place.
What is RSS and how does it work?
RSS is a term that has several meanings. Originally it stood for “RDF Site Summary,” and now (officially) it means “Rich Site Summary.” But most people use RSS to mean Really Simple Syndication. As a user, this is the most important thing to know — it is really simple to use.
Syndication means distributing content so that people can view it somewhere other than at its original placement. For example, television reruns are syndicated to the various networks and cable channels. Whenever you watch old episodes of I Love Lucy, you are experiencing syndication.
RSS is a means for website publishers to do the same thing — to make their content available somewhere other than on their website. They still publish to their website, and you can read it there if you want. But they are also making it available for you to read somewhere else.
As a user, you don’t have to know too much about the “under the hood” technical details — but it helps to have a general idea what is going on.
A website publisher usually puts each new piece of content — a blog post, a news story, video, recipe, or whatever — on its own page with its own URL. Then, they also have an “index” page (usually the main page of the site) that lists all the new content, with a headline, all or part of the post, maybe a picture, and a link to individual page for each post. That index page is the one you keep coming back to, or refreshing, to see if there is new content available.
If you're ready to get started with RSS you'll need a feed reader. Feedly is our recommended RSS reader.
Now, since the feed is designed to be read by computers, and it gets updated everytime the site has new content, you can set up an app (called a Feed Reader) that will check the feed for you to see if there is new content.
When you check for new content, you have to stop what you are doing. Then you have to open up the page, wait for it to load, and actually look at the page. Then you either read the new post or are disappointed that there isn’t a new post. Then you can go back to what you were doing. It can really interrupt your day. And if you have several sites you like to follow, the process can take several minutes or even longer.
When an app does it for you, it just happens in the background. The reader checks all the different sites, over and over. It happens automatically, without taking up any of your time.
Then, when you are ready, you can read updates from all of your different favorite sites all at once. Some people like to read through all their RSS Feeds in the morning, like its a personalized newspaper. Other people look at it them over lunch, or in the evening when they get home from work (or in the afternoon when they are avoiding work).
Subscribing to RSS
So now that you know how it works, how does it work? That is — how do you actually use it?
You need an RSS Feed Reader (usually just called a Feed Reader, or just Reader).
The Feed Reader is the app that checks all your favorite sites for updates. Then it stores the new content for you and presents it for you to read.
RSS is a term that has several meanings. Initially, it stood for RDF Site Summary, and now it means Rich Site Summary. However, most people use RSS to mean Really Simple Syndication.
One of the most popular Feed Readers is Feedly. It provides a very easy-to-use interface and it works well in several browsers. There’s also mobile apps available for it.
Whether you are using Feedly or another reader, the process for subscribing to a site is the same. All Readers have a “Subscribe” or “Add Content” function. Just go click that and enter the URL of the page you want to subscribe to. If there is an RSS Feed available, it will find it for you and add it. Then it will start checking for updates.
You can usually read the new update right there in your Feed Reader, much like how you read email. You can also click a link to the original site and read it there.
Much like email, your feed reader will keep track of what posts you’ve read and which ones you haven’t read. This helps you save time by letting you focus just on new material.
One of the advantages of a Feed Reader — besides the automatic update subscription — is that you can focus on the content itself. The stories alone are presented to you by themselves, without the design of the original website. No sidebars, no ads, no weird typographical decisions. Maybe most importantly — no comments. You can focus on what the writer has to say, and not struggle to ignore all the competing content.
Alternatives to RSS
RSS is one of the best ways to get updates from websites, but it isn’t the only way. If RSS doesn’t quite work for you, try one of these others.
Many website that have RSS feeds also have an email subscription option. It isn’t universal, but it is very common. If you subscribe via email, you will usually get regular messages telling you about new content. Many sites also offer additional, exclusive content only through their email subscription.
Be careful, though. A lot of websites use their email list primarily as a platform for sales offers. This is fine if you like to buy whatever it is a particular website is selling, but it can get annoying very fast.
Just because you Like a page on Facebook doesn't mean you will see all of it's updates. If it's critical that you see ever update, try a different method of subscription.
A note of warning though — Facebook uses a complex algorithm to decide who sees what in their newsfeed. Sometimes, even if you have decided to Follow a page, you won’t always see their new updates. This is probably fine if you are only casually interested. But if it is vitally important for you to see their new content, you probably want to use a different subscription method.
Most websites with RSS feeds (and some without) Tweet out updates to their site, with links to the new content. If you Follow them on Twitter, you’ll see their new content in your stream.
The problem with this is that there is a lot of noise on Twitter. If a site you follow tweets out a link, and then a hundred other people that you follow tweet something before you see it, you may never notice the link.
Like Facebook, Twitter is really great for casual subscription to a blog, but if you really need to see every new update, you might want to use a more formal subscription method.
- RSS lets you subscribe to websites so that you see new content whenever the site is updated.
- RSS is one of several ways to keep up with your favorite website. If it is really important that you see all the new content from a site, it is probably the best way.
- RSS is very easy to use, and makes following many different sites very convenient.
- You can think of RSS as your own personal newspaper.
- To use RSS you need an RSS Reader such as Feedly.