Feed Me! Or, the basics about RSS Feeds for non-technical folk

Last week I took a wonderful class on social media taught by Kristen Lamb, which included discussion on blogging.

At one point, I asked a question about RSS feeds, and discovered that a lot of people have no idea what they are. And of those who do, some say RSS is on its way out. (Not sure I agree, but that’s another blog post.)

Simply put, RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication.” An RSS feed is basically a dump of recently-posted blogs (or other content) in a specific format that’s easily readable by software or web applications called feed readers. If you are on someone’s blog and you see a link to “Subscribe,” chances are it links to an RSS feed. On many blogs and sites with frequently updated content, you can identify an RSS feed. RSS feeds are often identified by the standard RSS image: Subscribe to RSS Feed

What’s great about RSS is it’s an easy way to keep up with multiple blogs or other content that’s frequently updated by collecting all the new content in one place (and only the new content, unless you specify otherwise).Typically, they let you categorize your blogs as well, and provide links to save clips, email, Like on Facebook, Tweet, etc. A popular feed reader is Google Reader.

Google Reader

Google Reader

You can keep track of, and read, all your blogs here. If you want to read your blogs on a tablet or phone, there are probably a variety of apps available, for free or low cost.  An RSS Feed Reader has been built in to the Internet Explorer web browser since version 7.

 Internet Explorer's built-in RSS reader

So why is RSS important?

  • The main reason is, it’s a convenience for your reader, and you want to make your blog as easy to get as possible for your audience.
  • It helps you get the word out when you have new content. RSS feeds are indexed by search engines, and readers who subscribe to your feed know about your updates as soon as they open their feed readers.
  • Readers who otherwise might not be able to view your blog, can often read it in a feed reader. Where I work, anything slightly resembling a personal page or entertainment is blocked. But Google Reader is not. OK, I admit it – I read blogs at work. Hey! I’m not goofing off – I read them during break and while I’m waiting for slow software scripts to run. And thanks to Google Reader’s email feature, if I see a blog I need to comment on (or read other readers’ comments), I email it to myself so I remember to do that later.

What can you do

  • First, make sure your blog is set to generate an RSS feed. Most (if not all) blogging software automatically generates an RSS feed by default. Some programs let you choose whether or not to generate a feed (sometimes called “publish” or “syndicate”). I can’t see why anyone would choose not to do this, since most of us write blogs to be read!
  • Make sure there’s a link to your feed on your blog’s home page, preferably on your blog post template too. This makes it easy for readers to subscribe by adding it to the IE reader simply by clicking on it. Many other readers like Google provide a bookmarklet you can add to your Favorites or Links bar. In most WordPress blogs, the RSS feed link is part of the standard META sidebar widget. Most Blogger templates include an RSS link (sometimes called Atom feed) either in a sidebar or a footer.
  • Please, publish entire articles! WordPress blogs give you the choice to offer either Full Text (the default) or Summary. Other blog software may offer something similar. See reasons to do this under “Why is RSS Important,” above. I find it a real bummer to run across an interesting/useful/funny blog I want to follow, only to find only short excerpts in its feed. Sometimes I’ll subscribe anyway, but I don’t read all the articles, since I can’t do it from work. Oh, and if your reason for only publishing excerpts is that you hope to entice more people to click through and comment? Doesn’t work. Once in a while, I’ll save one to read later at home, but more often, I just skip them altogether.

So if you were confused or unsure about what that “Subscribe” is on blogs, now you know – and you may have found a more convenient way to keep up with them!

If you have more questions about RSS feeds, feel free to ask in the comments. I’m not an expert, but I’m a technical person – if nothing else, I can probably find you some links.

Do you use RSS feeds? If not, why? If so, what feed reader do you use, and what do you like about it? Do you follow blogs by some other technology/means? If so, please share! I’m always interested in learning about new tech.