RSS (Really Simple Syndication), XML and Atom feeds – known generically as web feeds – are useful for keeping abreast of web sites which update often. When you subscribe to a web feed, you see an abbreviated list of articles, much like a table of contents for a magazine. Web feeds contain a title, a “teaser” showing a little of its content, and a link to view the whole article. This is a convenient and time-saving way of scanning new content on a web site. You can quickly find those pages of interest without wasting time loading the “stinkers.” Here’s a sample feed from our site:
It order to get the most out of a web feed, you’ll want to use a web browser with built-in web feed support. You can also use a stand-alone feed reader, but built-in browser support is more convenient. The Safari browser (pictured above and inset below/right) has the best built-in web feed support of any browser, and is available for both Mac and Windows. It tracks feeds and displays a count of the articles you haven’t read yet. It can also aggregate feeds, meaning that it can merge the contents of multiple feeds, sorted by the criterion you select, and seamlessly display all articles as though it were a single web feed. By adjusting the “Article Length” slider, you control how much (or little) of the teaser you see. A “Search” area is provided to filter articles based on keywords inside the feeds. And feeds may be filtered by their age as well.
When you place web feeds in your toolbar, Safari automatically looks for and displays a count of the new articles available. If you place web feeds inside a toolbar folder, the “new” count is actually an aggregate of all the web feeds inside. You may choose to view an individual web feed, or display them as an aggregated collective (see inset).
Firefox is another browser which supports web feeds (via plug-ins), although not as smoothly and seamlessly as Safari’s interface. Sage is perhaps the best of the Firefox web feed reader plug-ins. However by the time you read this, there may be a new kid on the block. Check out Sage first, then if you feel like experimenting, try out some of the other plug-ins.
Once you start using web feeds, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without them.
The Wikipedia has a detailed write-up about RSS feeds.