Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, is a technology that is used to automatically deliver information from a web server to various pieces of software. This allows the end user to have up to date information from a particular source each time he visits a website or uses a piece of software that is updated via RSS. This technology is what powers many of the popular websites on the Internet today. If you have ever used Facebook, Twitter or read any blogs you are receiving benefit from RSS technology.[see NOTES below]
What RSS Feeds Do
The easiest way to get an understanding of what RSS does is to open news.google.com and see all the content on the page. Google does not write all of that news. They get the content from RSS feeds that is then used to populate the stories on the page. Every few minutes the page will refresh giving you the latest news that they are pulling in from their different sources.
Pages like Google News get their information from the RSS feeds of other websites. The "feed" is a dynamic page that gets updated every time a website is updated. Each time a blog has new content written to it, the RSS feed is updated. Or, in the case of news, every time a new story is written to a news provider's website their RSS feed gets updated. Then when you look at Google News, the Google News website grabs all of the RSS feeds from the different provider's websites and places the content on the front page for you to read. This lets you see the latest news that all of the news providers have on their websites without having to visit each one individually.
That is the end result of what RSS does on a page that is curated for you. But you can use RSS to build your own custom news and information pages without depending on Google to give you the news they want you to have.
How to Use RSS Feeds
Besides going to Google News, you may have a local news provider that you prefer. If that is the only place you care to get your news, you may be satisfied with visiting their website each time you want to catch up on what is happening in the world, or more probably, around your home town. However, if you get your news from two or three news outlets, you can use RSS to pull all of the information into one place. This will allow you to open one web page, or piece of software, and get your personally curated news. The "feed" is so called because that information is fed from the news providers to your content delivery mechanism.
You don't have to be a news junkie to use RSS. Do you have a list of bookmarks in your browser of pages you must visit everyday because the information is constantly changing? Do you like reading certain blogs to keep up with your friends? Then using an RSS reader can help you get all of your information into one place. This keeps you from having to visit each site separately. It also keeps you from wasting a lot of time visiting sites that have not been updated since you last visited. The more individual sites you have to visit each day, the more likely you are to forget one. By having all the information coming to one place, your RSS reader, you will be sure to see everything that is posted. You will be less likely to miss the news that your friend's dog died of old age last week. Believe me, asking about someone's deceased pet, when you should have known the news, is not a pleasant situation.
Now you understand what RSS does and ways you could use it. Let's dig into how you can put RSS to work for you.
Making RSS Feeds Work for You
To get started with RSS, you can get reader software for your computer, or you can use an online RSS reader. There are reasons why one would prefer one over the other. If you primarily use one computer to access the Internet, then using reader software on the computer is usually less complicated and can be a much more enjoyable experience because of the customization options. However, with all the great online tools available today, we are becoming less and less dependent on using one computer to get our information. For convenience sake, it makes sense to have an online reader that you can access from any Internet connected machine. Then there is the hybrid method which allows you to do both. Some of the more popular RSS reader software packages today give you that functionality. They will synchronize with an online tool giving you the flexibility of the web based option along with the functionality of the installed software.
I have written another article with specific recommendations for RSS readers and how to use them.
*NOTES: We use RSS technology in many of the popular websites we use today. If you are a user of Facebook you will be familiar with the concept of having friends. The way your news feed (the "home" page on Facebook) is populated with the news and information of your friends is that you are subscribing to the RSS feeds of those friends. By friending someone you are setting up an RSS feed that allows their content to be shown on your news feed, and vice versa.
Twitter works the same way. These websites may not call what they do an RSS feed, but the way RSS feeds and the way these other real time news services work is essentially the same.
If you have ever used iTunes to subscribe to a podcast, then you are using RSS. The podcast provider updates his blog whenever a new episode is released. iTunes then checks each day to see if there are any new episodes at the podcast website. If there are, then iTunes downloads the new content without you having to visit the individual podcast websites. It is an automatic process and becomes a huge time saver if you want to listen to more than just a handful of podcasts.
Therefore if you are a user of the web today, you probably are a heavy user of RSS, you just didn't know that is what it was called.