The Basics of RSS Explained

Want RSS explained in a simple, easy-to-understand way without a lot of bells and whistles? The purpose of RSS is to simplify your Web browsing, so RSS explanations shouldn't make this task more difficult.

What Is RSS?
Depending on who you ask, RSS either stands for Really Simple Syndication, or Rich Site Summary. Both descriptions give you a basic hint at what RSS does, but neither really tells you how RSS works.

For RSS to work, you first need a URL for the feed. In some contexts, a content provider has an option to enable RSS feeds. When you start a blog with some blogging platforms, you'll have the option of enabling RSS. If a content provider enables RSS, then readers are able to use RSS feed readers or RSS aggregators to grab data.

RSS feeds set the content up so that people who use RSS readers get it sent to them automatically, without having to visit the page. RSS sets out a specific series of guidelines for the way the content is generated; this enables RSS readers to download the content from the page.

Benefits of RSS
Why would people want to make it possible for other folks to "grab" their content? Quite simply, it gets people reading. When you find a Web site that you like, you might bookmark it and intend to come back. But most people have sporadic browsing patterns; you might forget to come back for days, or even weeks, and miss out on a lot of content. Additionally, when content providers update sporadically, you'll probably forget to go altogether because there's rarely any new information.

RSS feeds enable you as the reader to look at all of your favorite content in a single spot. When you subscribe to RSS feeds, they'll display new content in your RSS reader; you won't have to go to seven different Web sites to check seven different blogs. You can look at the content in your reader when you have time, and you'll automatically see all the new content; you don't have to go hunting for it.

How to Use RSS
It's relatively simple to use RSS to keep track of your favorite content. First, you'll need an RSS reader. You can use a Web-based RSS reader if you don't want to download software or if you want to be able to access your feeds from any computer. Web-based readers can also give you more functionality and search options.

If you prefer being able to read your RSS content even when you're offline, you can get desktop RSS readers that download content when you're connected to the Internet. You won't get updated content while you're offline, but you will be able to read what's there without an Internet connection.

Once you have an RSS reader or RSS aggregator, all you need is the RSS URL. The RSS URL isn't the same as the source URL; for example, to subscribe to a LiveJournal RSS feed, you'll need the regular user URL, plus the unique RSS URL. Most RSS sources make it very easy to find the RSS URL, which you can plug into your RSS reader. Once that's done, content will stream to you automatically and you'll never need to visit the site again.

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