RSS 101

I’m a recent convert to RSS (don’t ask me why it took so long). And seeing as how I’ve only just found the joys of loading my RSS reader with feeds, I figure there are plenty of other people who don’t know the kinds of benefits to be reaped from becoming an RSS fanatic.
We’ll start with an analogy–using RSS is like subscribing to a local newspaper. When changes are made to the newspaper (think daily newspapers), those changes are delivered to your doorstep in printed form. You can even subscribe to several different local newspapers at once, all of which will have changes, and the changes will be delivered to your front door. You don’t have to go out; they come to you.

That’s how RSS works. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. From a user’s perspective, it’s a simple way to collect updates from blogs, news articles, and other online content instantly and to a single location. From a publisher’s perspective, it’s a simple way to publish updates to blogs, news articles, etc. instantly and in a standard format for users to read.

Basically, it simplifies things. No more bogged-down bookmark bars with the blogs of all your friends, immediate family members, and distantly-related cousins. No more checking the Times for the latest articles. It’ll all come to YOU.

Enter Google Reader. There are plenty of RSS readers out there (you can even use Outlook if you’re married to your exchange server), so you might want to do your homework. Honestly, I started with Google just to play around with it, and haven’t found anything I really dislike. So Google Reader it is (for now).

First, find the feed you want to subscribe to. If you click on a “Subscribe to RSS” button on any web site, you’ll see a new window open up with a new URL. Copy that URL to your clipboard (CTRL + C).

The second step is logging in to Google Reader. Once you’ve logged in, you’ll see an environment that somewhat resembles an email inbox.

On the left, you’ll see a button to Add a Subscription:

Just paste in the RSS feed obtained from your source. In this case, I’m using “spencerbean.com/feed”, the feed URL for this blog.

Once you’ve subscribed to a feed, it’ll show up in your list of subscriptions:

You’ll see I’ve got quite a few, arranged by folders. To manage your subscriptions and put them into folders, click on the arrow in the top right corner of the subscription panel:

I won’t go into the details there–hopefully it’s pretty self-explanatory.

One last tip (personal preference, really): Change your Show options from Expanded to List. You’ll find this option in the top right corner of your browser, just below your Google account name, settings, etc:

Changing it to list will show only the title of each new RSS feed item that comes in. It more closely resembles a Gmail inbox.

You’re all set to go! Now, any time something comes in from that feed, you’ll see it in your “inbox” area. And if you have multiple feeds, they will always come in by date and time, with the newest on top. Simply click on the title from the “inbox” area to read the post.

If you want to go to the actual article on the actual web page, click on the two arrows next to the title:

You’ll notice that some articles in your RSS reader may not contain the full text. That’s just a ploy on the publisher’s part to get you to actually visit the web site. In those cases, you’ll almost always have to follow the RSS article to the actual article by clicking the double arrow button.

And that’s RSS in a nutshell. In other posts, I’ll show how to browse for feeds you might be interested in. Check back for more posts.

RSS with Feedburner

Have you ever wondered why people use FeedBurner for theirĀ RSS feeds? Well, if you’ve ever used Google Analytics to track traffic on your site, you know how cool it is to check traffic sources, page views, and bounce rate. Feedburner, another free service provided by Google, tracks information about your RSS subscribers.
When you create a FeedBurner RSS feed, all you’re really doing is redirecting the channel through which people receive your feed. It acts as a middle man, so to speak, between your feed and your subscribers, and tracks the information being passed back and forth. It won’t change the way your viewers see your feeds. FeedBurner will tell you the readers your subscribers are using (like Google Reader, for example), how many subscribers actually click on your post to go to your blog, and which country your subscribers are subscribing from.

So how do you create a feed?

If you’re using a blogging platform like Blogger, creating a feed with FeedBurner is fairly simple. You may not realize, but your blog already has an RSS feed. All you need to do is redirect your feed to go through FeedBurner. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll assume most people are using Blogger.

Here are the steps:

    1. Go to Feedburner.com to get started. If you’re not already logged into Google, it’ll ask you to authenticate.
    2. Enter your blog’s URL (I’m using an old, outdated blog. Maybe one day I’m revamp it.)

    1. You’ll probably see two feeds – Atom and RSS. Atom is just another syndication technology, like RSS. Both do essentially the same thing, so you can choose either one. I’ll be sticking with RSS. If you’d like to read up more about the differences between Atom and RSS, check out this article.

    1. Give your feed a name and a FeedBurner URL. The feed name is what people will see when they subscribe to your feed. Make a note of your feed’s URL–you’ll need it later.

    1. At this point, you’ll probably want to add a few of the extra features FeedBurner has to offer. Click Next.

    1. Check ‘Clickthroughs’ and ‘I want more!’ If you’re a podcaster or have lots of downloadable content, check ‘Item enclosure downloads’.

* At this point, you’ve successfully created your FeedBurner RSS feed. Now, you need to change some settings on your blog to make sure your blog feed uses FeedBurner.

    1. On your blog dashboard, choose ‘Settings’ for your blog.

    1. On the ‘Settings’ tab, choose ‘Site Feed’.

    1. In the field Post Feed Redirect URL, type the full URL of your FeedBurner feed.

  1. Click ‘Save Settings’, and you’re done!

From here, just log in to FeedBurner and you’ll see a list of your current feeds. Clicking on them will bring up the individual feed statistics. The new FeedBurner feed will automatically include anyone who was already subscribing to the old RSS feed. In other words, your current following will show up in your FeedBurner stats.

You might wonder how many people are actually using RSS to view blogs. The answer? More than you’d think. On my wife’s blog, she has 39 followers. Her feed, however, has 60 subscribers. Personally, I use nothing but RSS feeds to follow friends, get my news, and keep up to date on my interests and hobbies. I’ve become a huge fan of Google Reader, a really simple tool that does a great job of organizing my feeds (more to come on Google Reader).

If you’re like my wife, you’ll want to publicize your new posts. Isn’t that the whole reason you have a blog? In future posts, I’ll show you how to automate the process of instantly publicizing your new posts on both Twitter and Facebook. That way, all your Twitter followers and Facebook friends will have quick and easy access to your most recent posts.