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RSS Simplified For Users

What is RSS and how can it help me? Blogging is on the rise again so this question comes up often today. The easiest way to answer it is to understand why RSS was invented. So here’s a quick overview, skipping lots of details you don’t need to know to use RSS.

Back in the 1990s, I’d begin a session online by visiting the Yahoo news page. Then I’d pull up the Yahoo business page, then Reuters, then the BBC. Then I’d check on the forum I ran and another forum run by a friend. Then I’d check the Usenet groups I followed. All of this was done by manually clicking on bookmarks, waiting for the page to load, and navigating up and down pages. Internet connections were much slower then and page loads were often slow. What’s more, if nothing had changed on that web site, I just wasted my time loading it. During the day, I was busy. I’d check back on some sites, but not all, so I would miss things.

All this clicking and waiting was tedious and annoying, so a better way was invented. There were a couple of false starts, then RSS was born around 1999 or 2000.

The idea behind RSS is for a web server, upon request, to deliver a “hidden” web page that contains a summary of content in a precise format. RSS defines the format. The file is encoded in XML so it’s easily decoded by a computer. This file is called the “RSS feed”.

Web designers decide what information is provided in the feed. It contains, at least, things like article titles, dates, and a snippet of each article’s text. It can include much more as the web designer wishes.

With the RSS standard in place, it became possible to create RSS Reader software. To use a reader, you configure it with the RSS feed addresses of all the web sites, blogs, and forums you want to stay on top of. From then on, the RSS reader updates itself automatically and shows you the latest stuff from all your sites, gathered together in one place. There are many RSS readers to choose from that will display information in a way that pleases you. No more manual surfing to a dozen different sites or wasting your time on sites that haven’t changed. RSS Readers keep track of which articles you’ve read and lots more. For instance, most readers can be programmed to alert you if certain key words are detected. This can be extremely useful.

Any web page that’s equipped to deliver an RSS feed will either have a link that says “RSS” or an icon that looks like this.

RSS Icon

If you click on that link, you’ll get a page of “gibberish”. That’s the gibberish your reader wants to see. If you’re curious, take a look at it. XML is text designed to be readable by machines and humans.

What you actually want to do is right click on the link or icon and select “Copy Link Address”. Then paste the link into your reader software. Your reader will explain how to do it. Usually there’s “add site”, or “add source”, or a plus sign to add another feed. That’s all there is to it. Since blogs have a low rate of change, it’s reasonable to follow hundreds of blogs and not be overwhelmed with information.

I hope this helps. Happy Blogging!

RSS Reader Solutions to Consider

It was suggested to put some recommendations here. I think it’s a good idea. However, to be honest, I haven’t tried lots of readers, so I’ll have to do some research. There’s a wide range of readers out there. Some are very simple and run from a command line. Others are big and loaded with features. There are also web-based readers. All recommendations are welcome. Please comment below about any readers you like or dislike, and why.

Years ago, this would have been easy: use Google Reader. Done. Google Reader was an excellent, very cool product, but they killed it. So, nevermind that.

EDIT: I’ve deleted what was written here before because I still don’t have a solution that I like for myself, and some of the info I presented was false.

Specifically, I was using Liferea on Linux. I like it a lot. I’m fairly picky about how a reader UI is layed out and Liferea was perfect. Liferea also supports podcasts. It’s considered the best reader for Linux by many. Every article that mentions Liferea says it supports various sync protocols like Tiny RSS, The Old Reader, etc. and Inoreader, and has since 2012. So, I beat my head against the wall, trying to get Liferea connected to my Inoreader account. Nothing worked.

Then I found some release notes from September 2018 and buried there was a little note: “Inoreader support removed. API broken.”  !?   Thanks a lot.

So, back to square one.

NOTE: This doesn’t have to be as complicated as I’m making it. There are dozens of readers that work fine and provide easy solutions. For example, you could set up with Feedly on your web browser (feedly.com) and be up and running immediately. For Android there’s a Feedly app. Problem solved. This may be the best way for a beginner to get started. Or, you could use the browser-based Inoreader (inoreader.com) and install the Inoreader app on your phone. Boom, solved.

In my case, I’m very picky. I want to use a native reader on my laptop, not a browser reader, and have it sync with an Android app on my phone. I want a reader with a certain layout that is largely text based, not graphical. I want podcast support. I could even set up my own server to provide the sync service.  This becomes complicated because I’m picky. So, don’t use me as an example. This is easy to set up if you’re not so picky.


  1. Deli Master

    Maybe you could recommend some web-based or fat-client RSS readers.

    • Phil

      That’s a good idea. I would recommend Google Reader, but, well, you know how Google is. I wonder if it should tag onto the end of this post or be a separate post. Hmm. I think I’ll tag it on and if it grows too big, split it off.

  2. Engrumpled Curmudgeon

    I’ve used the free version of Feedly (https://feedly.com/i/index) ever since Google stopped providing their RSS feed. It is web based and I have zero complaints about it. I get some ads but I could easily remove them by going Premium but they are not obtrusive in any way and I don’t mind. Based on the feed you are looking at on any given moment they will, in a sidebar, make suggestions on other feeds you may enjoy. They also tell you how many of their clients are subscribed to that feed – gives you a decent idea about its potential popularity etc.

    • Phil

      Thanks for the recommendation. Feedly will be added to the list. I’m trying to figure out why WordPress flagged your comment as spam. I can’t see any reason why it did that.

  3. Kevin E Welty

    Thank you sir. That was very helpful. Sounds like this may help me keep up with people I have bookmarked from Google +.

    • Phil

      Yes, I hope so. Thanks for commenting, by the way.

      Some of us plussers are starting or re-starting blogs. We’re tired of having the rug yanked out from under us. If the game is blogging, then RSS and Readers is the way to go. Works great.

      Once you decide on a reader you like, whether it’s a standalone app or a web-based reader like Feedly, you can also follow most everything else in the same reader — traditional news sources, magazines, NPR, blogs, forums, podcasts, and more. Any web site that has dynamic content almost invariably has an RSS feed you can use.

      Have fun!

  4. Doug

    I thought about setting up a blog but the last one I had took over my life – as has G+ so, just not going there again/anymore. There are much better things to do with what little time I have left

    • Phil

      Hi Doug. Yeah,that’s sort of the nature of social networking. For me it was Usenet and Compuserve, then forums, then blogging, then Twitter and Facebook. Then, dropped Facebook when G+ came out and blogging faded. Now it’s back to blogging in earnest. In a way, I’m glad. You can’t monetize Twitter, Facebook, or G+ like you can blogs.

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