RSS — An introduction

Cal State East Bay's news site offers several RSS feeds to subscribers as part of its Web content collection. This introduction explains what the University has included in these feeds and some of the ways Web visitors can use them. This is not a comprehensive guide to RSS usage; refer to other sources (such as the Wikipedia entry for RSS) for more thorough explanation of the software and links to RSS resources.

RSS is a way to receive and distribute Web content for programs and places other than Web sites. It stands for Really Simple Syndication. Content is sorted into a feed from its source, and every time new content is available, the feed is updated and subscribers are notified. To subscribe to a feed, you must use a reader or aggregator. Many browsers and e-mail programs have this functionality built in, and there are several other programs you can install to manage and read RSS content. Once you subscribe to a feed, the program will notify you of updates, usually as soon as content is published.

Almost every Web publisher, from major organizations (NY Times, CNN) to minor bloggers, has at least one RSS feed; you might also hear them called XML feeds, Web feeds, or RSS channels.

Why use RSS feeds?

Using RSS is an alternative to manually visiting Web sites for updates and also a way to easily scan several updates in a single place. It also protects your privacy, allowing you to get information sent to you without providing your e-mail address or personal information, as you would with an e-mail newsletter. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Some readers prefer not to use RSS feeds. Those who do not subscribe to a CSUEB RSS feed are not missing any content. Everything contained in the feeds is also available on the CSUEB news Web site. This is true for most RSS feeds and sources; RSS is simply another channel for information.

Subscribing to RSS feeds

There are many RSS readers, but unfortunately, no single best answer for which program to choose. It depends on the type of computer you use, the programs you use most often, how frequently you want to check feeds, from where, and what you want to do with the articles you see on the feed. There are Web-based readers like Google Reader, aggregators in Web browsers such as Safari, and tools in Outlook and other e-mail programs. This introduction includes some basic setup information.

CSUEB News RSS feeds and content

CSUEB's news site uses "metacategories" to create different feeds of news articles for certain audiences. There's also an aggregated feed of top news stories and a separate feed for the Inside CSUEB News Blog. The public news feeds are linked from the Social Media Directory. There are other RSS feeds created for internal use that are not publicized but may be available in the News Archive.

News article feeds include the headline, a summary of the article, and a link to the full text on the Web. The news blog feed includes the headline and complete text of the post, along with the link to the individual entry. There are no photos in the feed, but there are often pictures with the articles.

Other sources: RSS feeds may have different types of content depending on the feed and the source. Some feeds have only text, but some include images. Certain sources offer the full content of an article to read in one place; others provide only a headline or teaser content, requiring users to click through to the main site to read the whole article. To open any RSS article in a browser and see it on the original Web site, click the headline or link provided by the reader program.

Viewing RSS links in browsers

Some browsers, including many versions of Internet Explorer, do not display RSS or XML natively. When you click an RSS link in one of these browsers, you'll see the source code that reader programs translate. The URL (the Web address along the top of the window) is where the code is stored on a Web site; reader and aggregator programs contact this page to create a readable feed and update articles. You can copy the URL to the reader program of your choice. The address for an RSS feed typically ends in .XML but may not have the same domain name as the main site.

Other browsers, like Safari and Firefox, can display RSS for users to read, but this is not the same as subscribing. These browsers also have built-in subscription tools, displayed as a banner or action column, to make the subscribing process easier, or you can copy the feed's URL manually.

New message notifications

RSS doesn't send information in the same way as e-mail; you will not receive a message in your inbox every time there's a new article. But the program you use to receive and read the feeds will notify you in some way when there are unread items.

RSS in Microsoft Outlook

For users who are running Outlook and spend a lot of time with e-mail, the program offers a convenient way to get content from RSS feeds. To get started:

  • Copy the feed's URL from your Web browser.
  • In Outlook, go to Tools > Account Settings and click the option that says RSS Feeds. To add a feed, click New and paste the URL, then select Add.
  • Get more details from Microsoft's introduction to RSS and how to add an RSS feed

These feeds will show up on your main e-mail screen in the left-hand panel under the RSS folder heading; every time there is a new post to the feed, the folder will become bold, just like the inbox. Entries stay in the RSS folder, and do not go to the inbox, but you can easily share entries from the RSS feed via e-mail by selecting an action from the toolbar. You can also rename the feeds to something shorter and simpler, the same way you would rename a folder.

Mac OS RSS options

Apple's built-in Mail program and Safari browser include RSS readers and aggregators. Microsoft Entourage does not have RSS capabilities.

  • Mail works much the same way as Outlook, creating a folder in the e-mail program that displays unread RSS messages like e-mails. You can subscribe through the feed page in Safari or manually through the Account Preferences in Mail. Read more from Apple on ading RSS feeds.
  • Subscribing in Safari will create a bookmark of that feed in the browser, which will display a number next to the bookmark title when new articles are available. You can also add several feeds to a single folder, which will display the total number of new items at the top level and allow you to read all feed articles at once. Read more from Apple on RSS in Safari.

Google Reader and Web-based readers

Web-based readers allow you to access your RSS feeds and subscriptions at any time from any computer, a more flexible choice if you regularly use more than one computer or device. You will need to visit the Web reader site every time you want to read what's new in the feeds, but you are not limited to a single computer or device. Most online aggregators, including Google Reader, are also accessible from smartphones and mobile browsers.

  • You need a personal Gmail account to set up Google Reader. For CSUEB employees, Reader is not part of the University's Google Apps suite.
  • Firefox allows you to add feeds to Google Reader in just a few clicks, or you can set feeds manually. Copy the URL from an RSS feed and go to the Google Reader page and click + Add a Subscription to paste. Reader will display feeds and updates on the left-hand navigation and content in the rightpanel, similar to an e-mail reader. Read more about Google Reader.

Alternatives

There are many different programs, applications, and Web services that use RSS feeds, available for Windows and Macs, as well as apps for Blackberry devices, iPhones, and Android phones. Some are free, others cost up to $5 or $10 to purchase and install. Many of the more popular options are extensions that run within the Firefox browser. There is also a version of Safari for Windows that includes the same RSS functions as for the Mac. Depending on how you prefer to use RSS feeds, some of these other tools may suit your needs best.

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