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October 9, 2006

Understanding RSS: A Quick Guide For The Insanely Busy Executive

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If you’re a tech-geek like me and already know most of what there is to know about RSS, there’s no need to read this article. But, I would advise that you keep a link to this article around and forward it all the people you know that haven’t clued in to the value of RSS yet. It’ll save you the 10 minutes of conversation and arm-waving you would need to try and explain this to someone. Those are 10 minutes of your life you’ll never get back.

If you don’t know what RSS is, or are not using it yet, read on.

As an insanely busy guy myself, I’m always on the prowl for useful tools that make my life easier, save me time and give me an edge over my competition. Much like those early days after you discovered email, and now can’t even think about how you’d live without it, RSS will change your life. Unlike email, it won’t take you that long to get started and it won’t cost you anything.

I’ll tell you what RSS stands for (Really Simple Syndication), but it’s really not important to know that unless you’re looking to impress your friends and family.

What it does: Let’s assume that you go to some number of websites on a semi-regular basis. Could be mainstream news sites, could be blogs like this one, could be any number of different places. The reason you go to these sites is usually to get information. Let’s say there are 20 or so of these sites. Some sites you may visit daily, others you visit “every now and then” just to see if there’s something new of interest. Now, imagine you had an assistant, we’ll call him Ralph. Here’s what Ralph does: He visits each of the sites you care about every 15 minutes. He checks to see if there’s anything new on those sites. If he finds something new, he retypes the relevant content from just the new stuff he found (ignoring all the other old stuff that you’ve already seen) and provides it to you in your email inbox – magically categorized by which site it came from. Boy this saves you a bunch of time! Instead of you having to manually go to the sites, Ralph does it for you. Instead of having to mentally “adjust” your reading habits based on the fonts, graphics and other layout of each individual website, Ralph makes it easy for you to scan the article you’re interested in – because they’re all in the same format. Most importantly, Ralph makes sure that you don’t waste a second reading the same content twice (which you may likely do if you visit the sites on your own, because you have to scan around and try to remember what stuff you’ve already read). So, RSS makes possible what Ralph does – only better.

Why You Should Care:  Two primary reasons:  It's a quick and reliable way to keep track of information on websites that you care about.  Beats having to visit these sites sporadically.  Second, since the information is formatted in a consistent manner, you end up spending less time "scanning" the information.  Imagine if your newspaper was printed such that each article was in it's own font and had it's own layout.  That's the way the web is for you withour RSS.  Using RSS fixes that problem.  Net result is that you're able to process information more efficiently than doing this manually.  It's worth the 10 minutes time it takes to get started.

How It Works:  Basically, you use an RSS reader application (either web-based or desktop-based) and add a list of "feeds" (basically websites) that you want to subscribe to.  Once you do this, the RSS software goes out and visits your designated websites periodically.  Whenever it finds something new, it pulls that information in for you to read.  When it does this, it uses a special format to get the data (which is a form of XML).  This is what makes it possible to visually show you the content in a consistent manner. 

What You Need: The basic software you need is known as an RSS reader. This is the software that replaces Ralph. You basically tell the software all the different websites you want it to visit, it checks their “RSS feed” and determines if there’s anything new. There are lots of free RSS readers out there (I use OnFolio, which is now free as part of Microsoft’s Live Toolbar). But, if this is the first time you’re experimenting with RSS, no need to even download anything, you can use one of the existing web-based RSS readers for that. Google just came out with a free web-based RSS reader. You can signup for it here: http://www.google.com/reader . Another popular reader is BlogLines (http://www.bloglines.com) Either of these will take no more than a minute, and you’ll be subscribing to RSS feeds in no time.

How To Get Started: It’s easy. Once you have Google Reader (or your RSS software of choice) ready to go, you simple keep an eye-out for websites that have an orange icon that looks like this  or this . These icons indicate that the site you are visiting supports RSS. At this point, you can click on these icons. The resulting page may give you a simple way to add the website to your RSS reader (for example, you may see an “Add To Google” button). If not, simply copy the URL from your browser into your clipboard. Then, click on the “Add Subscription” button on the left in Google reader and paste in the URL. That’s it.

Once you start using RSS as a way to quickly get website updates, you’ll never turn back. It is a significant time-saver.

-Dharmesh Shah

master blogging - free hubspot academy class

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