Module 2: RSS

Learning objectives

  • Understand what RSS is
  • Know what an RSS aggregator is
  • Know how to find RSS feeds
  • Understand how RSS feeds can be used in the library

Last week we looked at blogs, and since most of you have already set up your own blogs, you might have encountered the term “RSS”. Or perhaps you’ve seen one of these icons during your web travels:

RSS feed icons

Well, this week is all about demystifying RSS! Read on for an introduction to the technology, some ideas on how you can use it, a few links to RSS search engines and directories, an explanation of this week’s activities, and finally some optional readings for those who would like to explore a little further!

What is RSS?
RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication” and is an XML file format for delivering content on the web. You will also find RSS referred to as “web feeds” or just “feeds”. A good way to understand RSS feeds is to think about them as magazine subscriptions: rather than having to frequently visit the newsstand to check for a new issue of your favourite magazine, you can just subscribe to it and sit back & wait for the new issues to come to you. RSS works the same way. If your favourite website publishes an RSS feed, you don’t have to keep visiting it to find fresh content; you can just subscribe to the RSS feed and wait for that fresh content to come to you. And, unlike magazine subscriptions, RSS is free!

If you’re feeling brave and would like to have a look at what an RSS file looks like, click here. Yes, that looks like a bunch of scary code, but the good news is, you shouldn’t ever have to look at that code (unless you want to!), because that’s what RSS aggregators do.

What are RSS aggregators?
RSS aggregators are applications that read RSS feeds. An aggregator will take an RSS feed (like the one linked above) and convert all that coding into something that is readable, with a defined title, formatting, and hypertext links that you can click on. The other important feature of an aggregator is the built-in update function that checks the feeds you’ve subscribed to for fresh, new content. If new content is found, your aggregator delivers that to you.

Example of an aggregator

Example of an aggregator

Aggregators come in a few different flavours:

  • Desktop: these are software applications that required downloading and installation on a computer.
  • Web-based: online aggregators live on the web and require users to set up a username and password to access them. To access a web-based aggregator, you go to the site, login, and read your feeds online. The advantage of web-based aggregators is that you can access them from multiple computers (home, work, service desks, etc.). Two popular web-based aggregators are Bloglines and Google Reader.
  • Browser-based: the latest versions of many browsers (like Firefox and Internet Explorer 7) include the ability to subscribe to and read RSS feeds right in the browser.

So, how does it work, exactly?
If a website publishes a feed, it is usually indicated on the site in at least one of the following ways:

  • a hyperlinked orange icon (three examples are included at the beginning of this post);
  • a link called “RSS” or “XML” or “Subscribe” (or some variation thereof);

Most often, when you want to subscribe to a feed, you have to right-click the link to the feed (which, again, can be indicated by either an orange icon or a text link), select “Copy Link Location” or “Copy Shortcut”, and add the link to your aggregator. Specific instructions for subscribing to feeds in Bloglines and Google Reader are included below under Activity #2.

Finding Feeds

  • Directories & Search Engines: yes, there are search engines and subject directories devoted JUST to RSS feeds! Check out RSS Compendium for a list of sites. These types of sites allow you to do a keyword search and bring up results with easy-to-grab links to RSS feeds that you can subscribe to. Also, most web-based aggregators include an RSS search engine, so when you set up an account in Bloglines/Google Reader (this week’s Activity #1), you can use either of their search engines to find feeds.
  • Serendipity: chances are, you probably won’t remember how you found most of the feeds that end up in your aggregator because most of your subscriptions will probably result from your general web meanderings! When you’re on a web site and you’re wondering if they publish an RSS feed, remember to look for the orange RSS icons or for a link labeled “RSS”, “XML” or “Subscribe”.

How can I use RSS feeds in the library?

You can use your knowledge of RSS feeds to:

  • Teach students & faculty how to use the RSS feed functionality in Primo and other databases to receive updates on their research topics
  • Subscribe to blogs related to your work or your interests, for example the academic library blogs from Module 1
  • Subscribe to news feeds such as the Daily Bulletin

Activities

Are you ready to try things out? Work through the activities below to set up your own account with either Bloglines or Google Reader and get started on adding some RSS feeds! But before beginning, view this short video to see what’s ahead!

#1 The first activity for the week is to set up an account on either Bloglines or Google Reader.

Both aggregators offer similar features and functionality and the choice between the two usually comes down to personal preference. If you need some help deciding between the two, take a look at this article or contact your the Web 2.0 training team for guidance. Or, if you feel like exploring, set up accounts on both sites, play around in them (once you’ve added some feeds, which is Activity #2 for this week), get a feel for the interfaces, and decide for yourself!

#2 Once you’ve set yourself up with an aggregator (Activity #1), you’re going to need some feeds to subscribe to!

Start by subscribing to the feed for this blog. The feed for this blog is located at http://blogs.uwaterloo.ca/web20/feed/. To subscribe to it, right-click the feed URL, select “Copy Link Location” or “Copy Shortcut”, open up your aggregator, and subscribe to the feed using one of these methods:

  • If you’re using Bloglines: login to your account, click “Add” at the top-left of the screen, paste the feed URL into the “Blog or Feed URL” box, and click “Subscribe”. The next screen will give you some options on where you’d like to save the feed (you can organize your feeds in folders), once you’ve made your choices, click “Subscribe” at the bottom of the page.
  • If you’re using Google Reader: login to your account, click “Add subscription” at the top-left of the page, paste the feed URL into the input box that appears, and click “Add”.
  • If you know the URLs for any of your colleagues’ blogs subscribe to their feeds! To find their feed addresses, you will have to visit the blog and look for one of those RSS icons or an RSS/Subscribe link.

    Still looking for more feeds to subscribe to? Check out one or two of the RSS search engines or directories described above to find feeds of interest to you & subscribe to a few of those feeds.
    Make sure to visit your aggregator at least a couple of times this week to check for new content in the feeds you’ve subscribed to! (you’ll be surprised at how addictive RSS feed-reading can become!) And don’t forget to blog about your experiences using these tools!

    If you want to receive a certificate at the end of the Web 2.0 training, please send a screen shot of your feed reader to libweb20@library… To create a screen shot either use the program “Snag it” or you can use your keyboard command ALT + Print Screen to capture the image.


    Further Readings (optional)

    RSS for Non-Techie Librarians, Steven M. Cohen
    Blogging and RSS: The “What’s It” and “How To” of Powerful New Web Tools for Educators, Will Richardson
    Keeping Up by Using RSS, Roy Tennant
    RSS in Plain English, Common Craft Video
    7 Things You Should Know About RSS, Educause

    Acknowledgments
    This post is based on The Learning 2.0@Mac program.

    9 Comments

    1. ahitchen Said,

      April 6, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

      FYI, this post was created by Nancy Collins.

    2. Jane Forgay Said,

      April 7, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

      Great module, Nancy. Thanks!

    3. Janet Wason Said,

      April 8, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

      Thanks for taking some of the mystery out of this, Nancy.

    4. Margaret Yuen Said,

      April 13, 2009 @ 10:22 am

      Very nicely done, Nancy. A great introduction to RSS feeds.

    5. Laura Said,

      April 20, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

      I discovered that some Blogger sites don’t have the rss directly available. There is a tutorial that explains how to generate the “feed link” manually…sort of counter-intuitive isn’t it!
      Here the link to the tutorial: http://www.ritawilhelm.com/2009/03/12/how-to-get-a-blogspot-rss-url-get-your-rss-url-for-your-blogger-blog/

      The basic idea is that you need to add something to the end of the basic URL for the blog. I believe blogger requires …/feeds/posts/default

      So, for example, my new blog’s rss would be:

      http://stitchdiarybylaura.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/default

    6. Cornelia Said,

      April 20, 2009 @ 7:13 pm

      I just have a quick question…

      For some reason when I click the “Subscribe with RSS” on the Daily Bulletin it does not give me the option to use Bloglines. I’m not sure if anyone else is having trouble with this.

      I was however still able to add the RSS feed to my Bloglines account by using the “Add” button and pasting the Daily Bulletin link “http://www.bulletin.uwaterloo.ca/index.xml”.

      I’m glad I’m finally starting to understand all of this RSS stuff 🙂 Thank you Nancy.

    7. ahitchen Said,

      April 21, 2009 @ 7:28 am

      Question: when I click the “Subscribe with RSS” on the Daily Bulletin it does not give me the option to use Bloglines

      Answer: it seems that you only get the option to add to Bloglines if you are using Firefox. The option doesn’t appear in Internet Explorer. If you are using IE, simply copy the URL at the top of the RSS feed page and then add it manually to your reader.

    8. Mark Spencer Said,

      April 21, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

      Once again, thank you for a timely, relevant and interesting module: kudos!

    9. Marian Davies Said,

      April 28, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

      This is a very well designed module. Thank you for the clear explanations.
      🙂

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