What is a RSS Feed?

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What are RSS feeds? Perhaps you've seen text or image buttons on various websites inviting you to "subscribe via RSS." What does that mean exactly? What is RSS, what are RSS feeds, and how do you get them to work for you?

Short for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary.

This handy web device is revolutionizing the way we search for content.

Should you have a favourite website and need to keep up to date with what’s going on, you don't necessarily have to keep checking back to the website site to see if it's been updated, all you need to do is subscribe to the RSS feed, much like you would subscribe to a newspaper, and like a newspaper it is delivered to you.

RSS feeds really couldn't be simpler. They're basically simple text files submitted to the internet, which allow subscribers to see content within a very short time after its updated.

Sounds great! How does it work?

RSS is based on a language called XML (Extensible Mark-up Language), and as such, is slightly different to the way a normal web page is structured. If you accidentally stumble across an XML page on the internet, it might look like a jumble of angle brackets, as there is no styling information associated with XML pages, and so web browsers don’t know how to display them.

Because of this, you might not be able to view an RSS feed in the way you would normally visit a website. Instead, you would need an RSS reader (also called a feed reader, or aggregator) which is specifically designed for consuming RSS data.

Types of RSS Readers

There are 4 main types of RSS Reader:

  1. Web Browsers

    Many web browsers (such as Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox) offer a feed-reading view, which formats the XML into HTML. This means if you subscribe to an RSS feed with your browser, you would be able to view your RSS feed as though it were a regular webpage. N.B. Google Chrome does not currently offer such a feed-reading view, so if you use Chrome as your main browser, you will have to look at one of the other options below.
  2. Email Clients

    Many of the most popular email clients (such as Microsoft Outlook) also support RSS feeds. When you subscribe to an RSS feed in your email client, any updates on the feed will pop up just like it would if you had received an email. If you already use an email client which supports RSS, this might be a very good option for you, as you already check it for your email, and so there are no extra steps for you to remember.
  3. Standalone RSS Readers

    If you don’t have an email client or web browser with built-in RSS support, or would prefer to keep your news updates separate from your emails, the next option is to download a standalone RSS reader. This is software specifically designed for consuming RSS feeds, letting you know when there are updates, and allowing you to read them. Because RSS readers are very easy for programmers to make, there are literally thousands of these available for you to find, however, you have to be careful, as some can contain malicious code. If you don’t want to risk it, it would probably be safer to choose option 4 below.
  4. Online RSS Readers

    Instead of downloading software to manage your RSS feeds, you can use web services (such as Feedreader Online). These offer all the benefits of a standalone RSS reader, but without the need to download anything to your computer. In addition, as they are based on the web, you would be able to access your feeds from any computer at any time. Read an update on one machine, and it will know you’ve already read it if you log in on another one. Fast, free, and simple.

OK: I’ve chosen my RSS reader. How do I subscribe to a feed?

When a website offers an RSS feed, there is usually an orange button, labelled with the word ‘RSS’, or the RSS Symbol rss.

Depending on your browser, clicking this link will either take you to a feed-reading view, where you can choose how you want to subscribe to the feed from a drop-down list, or it will show you the ‘raw XML’. Either way, if you copy the URL from the address bar once the feed loads, you will be able to paste it in to your feed reader as a new feed.