How To Read RSS (as Promised)


June 27, 2006

A subscription — be it an email subscription or a feed subscription — is often how blogs, webzines and other content sites define conversion. After I wrote my post to Joel, talking about things he wasn’t doing right in his effort to to convert his readers to be RSS subscribers, a couple of people asked me, “How would you write an explanation of what RSS is?” So here goes.

What is RSS? Well, you really don’t care, do you now? All that matters is what it can do for you and how to make it work for you.

RSS Features. We’re going to refer to RSS by the more generic term, “feeds,” since RSS and its cousins will feed information to your desktop, much like a subscription to an email marketing newsletter feeds information to your inbox. Feeds bear another similarity to email: you need a place to read them, like Outlook, Eudora, your gmail account. Ditto for feeds: you can read them in software (that’s one of the reasons I like Thunderbird, I can read both my email and my feeds in one place) or you can establish a free account with the many webservices for reading feeds, such as Bloglines.

So it’s just like email, right? No, there are many differences.

  • Your feeds will never be subject to your corporate spam filter.
  • When you subscribe, you don’t have to give out your email address and fear that it will be abused.
  • If you subscribe to an email newsletter, the publisher always knows about you, and you have to work to be anonymous. But when you subscribe to a feed, you really are anonymous.
  • Being anonymous also means you can unsubscribe from feeds published by your friends without hurting their feelings.
  • I haven’t been staying on top of the “charge to charge” for email by AOL and Yahoo! but I hear it is coming. Feeds won’t be part of that financial project.

So how does someone make it happen? Remember that you need a place to read your feeds, just like you need a place to read your email. (see RSS Features, above.) Once you’ve got that set up, find a feed you are interested in. You will usually see an icon (often orange) with the words, Subscribe, or XML or RSS or just Get The Feed. Click on it, copy the Internet address bar of the next screen you get, paste that into wherever your feed reader wants it, and you are in business.


Robbin Steif