A Novice’s Guide to Feeds, Feed Readers and Subscriptions

The biggest knowledge lacking in many people I talk to who have plans for or have small web sites is the understanding of how emerging technologies helps them compete in today’s Internet. To effectively maximize their small site’s potential, they need to throw out many of their ideas of what their site’s purpose is and what benefits it brings, not only to themselves, but their visitors. That begins by understanding and using new technologies like feeds, feed readers and subscriptions.

I have cobbled this post together from some earlier writings of mine, updating it and expanding on some points. I hope it is useful to readers who are new users of this technology. I am not the first to tackle this topic, however. A good explanation of RSS feeds for the Oprah crowd is linked on my Resources page, and Dave Shea of mezzoblue has a very good summary as well.

What are Feeds, Feed Readers and Subscriptions?

As the web developed and grew to the point where the number of people, businesses and organizations with a web presence out numbered those who did not it became obvious to many people that keeping track of their favourite sites was an impossible task. As the number of sites they had an interest in grew, their list of bookmarks grew as well. Each site had its own update or publish schedule; some updated regularly and frequently, others on no set schedule or never at all. There was no way to know if the site was updated except to visit it. If you had 100 sites to check this could take a long time. Some pages may be bookmarked within a site as well because you were specifically interested in the information on that page. Then when wanting to access it later, you found the page was no longer available due to a site reorganization. You may have been able to find it by searching the site or web or it may be lost to you forever. For these reasons technologies were developed to ease the problems web surfers were having.

Two technologies which work together came about in the last decade to address the permanence and notification problems people were having. First dynamic database driven websites which had started as a way of managing the large amount of content some sites have introduced the idea of permalinks. Permalinks are links to content on your site that will never change. That is as long as your site is running the link will point to that content and never be broken. If someone bookmarks a page today, they should be able to use that bookmark in a year and see the same page, perhaps in a different layout or style and with updated content, but the same page just the same. For instance your FAQ page may have been updated with new content, but a link to it should still work even if you have decided to move it’s location in the site hierarchy. Friendly URI’s have made permalinks even better by making them human readable (and memorable) instead of based on a computer generated identification string. For example, the About page on this site is a friendly URI.

So permalinks reduce the problem of broken links. They are also used in the other technology developed to help people manage their bookmarks and know when sites have been updated. Syndication came about as a way to push information from sites to the readers rather than the reader having to check the site to pull the information off of it. Syndication is simply the producing of content into a special format which can then be read by a reader which understands that content format. Producing these content “streams”, which always have the latest site updates, allows people with a reader to determine if there are any updates to the site and if any of the updates are of interest to them to visit the site. Suddenly the task of checking all the sites you are interested in can be done at a glance instead of by visiting each site (more on syndication readers below).

Syndication is a general term for the publishing of site content in a known format that can be used by any application capable of reading that format. Currently there are two main syndication formats, RSS and Atom. Most syndication creation software and syndication reader software support the creation of feeds in the various versions of these two formats, however it is up to the site owner to decide if they will offer feeds in multiple formats. Syndication is a natural fit for news publishing sites which produce a wealth of stories or posts in a relative short time period, making it difficult for someone to notice every article just by checking the site. Syndication allows sites to publish summaries of their articles, and even offer different feeds for different story topics, such as world news, entertainment news, sports or even more specific topics. The reader is then much more likely to notice an article they wish to read and then visit the site, versus checking the site on their own schedule.

Syndication readers are often called feed readers, RSS readers or news readers or aggregators. The application may publish the syndication stream in a window, on your desktop, the taskbar or anywhere else. Most often reader applications are stand-alone applications or browser applications. Stand-alone applications are a separate application like your web browser that accept site or feed addresses to subscribe to and then display the subscribed feeds in a list showing the number of unread articles for each feed. Selecting a feed will display a post summary or the full post of the unread articles. You can click on the post permalink to open the full post in the feed reader (if capable) or your browser.

A web-based feed reader does the same thing except in the guise of a web application accessed via your browser. You subscribe, view subscribed sites and posts much the same way. The advantage of a web-based feed reader is that your subscription is not tied to your local computer, meaning you can access your subscribed feeds from anywhere using a web browser. Web-based feed readers do lack some of the features stand-alone readers can provide and some stand-alone readers have implemented synchronize features allowing you to move your subscription list among computers.

Some popular stand-alone feed readers are FeedReader, FeedDemon, NewzCrawler, and NetNewsWire. Some popular web-based feed readers are Bloglines and Google Reader.

You can determine if a feed is available for a site by looking for a RSS, Atom or XML icon (the standard syndication icon is an orange square with white waves emanating from the bottom left corner) or Feed links on the home page. If you don’t see one you can still try to add the feed in your feed reader using the main site address, if the feed is in a common location or it is already aware of the feed, it will find it.

Now that you know what feeds and feed readers are, it is time to start using one.

Bloglines Tutorial

For this tutorial I will be using bloglines.com, an online feed reader. Other web and stand alone application aggregators are available, I encourage people to do some research and pick the one that is best for them. An online aggregator is a good place to start though, and can always be abandoned at any time.

  • Go to www.bloglines.com
  • Click on the “Sign up now It’s free!” link in the middle of the page.
  • Register with an email address and password (this is what you will sign in with, password should not be the same as you use for sensitive accounts).
  • After registering you will receive an email. Follow the instructions in the email to complete the registration process.
  • Once registration is complete, visit http://www.bloglines.com/myblogs , sign in as necessary.
  • One the left hand side you will see a tab called My Feeds. Some default Bloglines feeds may already be subscribed and listed.
  • To add a feed, click the Add link at the top.
  • On the main section of the page, type the URL of the site you wish to subscribe to (for example, http://feddy.ca/ ).
  • Feeds found for the site will be displayed. In feddy.ca’s case there are two if you enter the main URL, one for the posts feed and one for the comments feed. Check the feeds you wish to subscribe to and click the Subscribe button at the bottom of the page. If only one feed is found you would only have to click subscribe.
  • The feed should now appear in your feeds list.
  • The number of unread articles will appear beside the feed and the feed will appear in bold when there are unread articles. Clicking on the feed link for feddy.ca will display a summary of the articles in the main section. You can then read the full article on the site by clicking the link on the article heading.
  • Another thing to note is that when viewing a site, you can see how many people are subscribed using Bloglines (not all possible subscriptions) in the top section.

Sites with feeds available are usually denoted with small orange RSS or Atom icons on the page somewhere, like those at the bottom of this site.

You can also click the Search link if you don’t know the address of the blog you want to subscribe to. Such as you don’t know if anybody has a feed for Cooking Crocodiles. Do a search for the term, it will return a list of sites on that topic, followed by a list of posts where that term was found.

So how does this help you? Well, when you are tracking a few or many sites for new updates, you often don’t know when they were updated and people are very poor at forcing themselves to visit sites regularly. Aggregation takes all sites you are interested in and notifies you when content is updated. You also can manage your information flow more efficiently, ignoring notifications about topics you are not interested in. If you set Bloglines as your home page, every time you open your browser you will be able to see the sites you are following that have new information, and decide to view them then or leave them for later.

Bloglines has many customizable features as well. Click the Account link in the top right corner to explore these options.

I encourage everyone who is looking for advice on sites to use a feed reader, subscribe to some sites, especially their own if they have feeds, and understand the power of this technology. There is a feed out there for every interest, from news and sports to comics, hobbies and other topics. Feeds are a great way of having new discussions on these topics delivered to you, allowing you to quickly filter what you wish to read. It is a great way to stay in touch with new information and expand your knowledge.

Once an individual has undergone this exercise and have used a feed reader every day for a couple weeks, they will see the benefits of being pushed content and how it allows them to be much more efficient in staying up to date with web sites. I hope they will also understand the importance of feeds on their site, regular content updates, and opening up a discussion between themselves and their visitors as a way to increase traffic and repeat visitors.

2 Thoughts.

  1. Thanks Eric. I hope it helps someone get started reading the web differently as it totally changes your perspective of the web. As for Bloglines beta, I can’t wait for it to get rolled out as the main Bloglines interface.

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