Ten Uses of RSS

[UPDATE: this is the last of four articles on RSS.]

Even though RSS has been used in many ways, news reading was at the heart of the RSS design and implementation. Since then, just like any good technology, it has taken root in other markets.

Here is a sampling of how RSS is used on the web today. Since RSS is constantly changing, this list will probably look different in a few months—at least for me.

  1. Ecommerce
    Retail web sites can notify consumers of the latest offerings and sales. A typical example is a company like eBay or Amazon that could send you updates on your favorite genre, author, or search term whenever a new product or specially priced item in that category is available. Since RSS can have links and other interactive content, it’s a simple way to market your products and keep customers up-to-date.
  2. Automatic search results
    Online services provide custom search results sent to you via RSS. For instance, as a Chicago area web design company, you can set up a feed to notify you every time the Google Top Ten changes for “chicago web design”.
  3. Project management
    Project managers can update team members of updates to job details, new to-do lists, and milestones. For example, if a group of high school students are working on a paper together online, RSS can be used to notify each student when the paper is updated by another team member.
  4. Event calendars
    Use RSS to update your local calendar from online social networking software. As with many other RSS uses, this one is largely untapped as of yet. I use RSS to update my local machine with web projects milestones from my Basecamp account.
    Services such as del.icio.us offer RSS feeds for popular tags. I follow a feed for “Neal Stephenson” so that every time a user posts a del.icio.us bookmark with a tag related to Neal Stephenson, I get an update in my RSS reader.
  6. Classified Ads
    Sites such as the wonderful craigslist offer RSS feeds for all of their categories, both big and small. Follow job offerings in your city, or look for RVs for sale (I get feeds for both of those things!).
  7. Photos
    In addition to bookmark feeds, other Social networking services use RSS to send updates. A great example is an online photo gallery called Flickr. Any time a user posts a Flickr photo with a tag of “tucson”, I get a notification with a thumbnail of the photo and link to view it online. It’s a great way to keep up with lots of new photos posted in your area of interest.
  8. Podcasts
    Podcasting relies heavily on subscription services many of which are RSS feeds. Updating and getting the latest audio content for your favorite podcasts is made easy by RSS. An extra plus is the show notes which can get included in the RSS feed as a convenient visual guide to the content.
  9. Package Tracking
    Track your FedEx, UPS, or DHL package with RSS. The way it works: enter the tracking number into your feed reader (such as Bloglines), then you will receive an update every time the tracking information is updated in the carrier’s database. This really beats manually checking the carrier’s site for updates.
  10. News reading
    Whether you are an avid reader of good online content, a writer, or other content producer, RSS can help you either stay on top of new material. Following a large number of blogs is the quintessential use of RSS in my life.

Summary: Though RSS is used in many ways today, blogs and news sites were the early adopters of the technology. This is changing! To see a good diagram of the new RSS usage, check out this blog post on Burning Questions (the FeedBurner blog). The 2005 RSS diagram shows some of the newer RSS uses in comparison to the older 2003 diagram.

Can you think of any other uses that I missed here?

Two New Sites by simpledream

Recently, simpledream produced two new web projects. The first, Beacon Equity Research, was designed by the client and I did the XHTML and CSS work for it. Probably the biggest challenge was to format lots of research data about stock markets into nice-looking tables. For example, the Dow Jones Industrial research page. The sad thing is that I don’t have control over the final code, so the HTML isn’t even close to validating due to later additions and changes by the client.

Another web site also launched recently: StockGuru.com. The original design idea was fleshed out, but I finished the design. Unfortunately the designer fell ill before designing the interior pages, so I only received an example of the front page to work with. From there, I did all the interior pages. For example, see the Email Signup page.

Both sites are for the same client so I won’t have control over the validation of StockGuru’s code either. They were fun projects, though, and I think will work well for their target market.

Maximize Your RSS Reading

In Part 1 of this four-part series on RSS, I introduced the basics of RSS. In the second article I discussed the various RSS readers [aggregators!] and how they differ from each other.

Now it’s time to maximize your RSS reading! By understanding how to find and save your RSS feeds you will get the most out of this exciting technology.

Where do I find new feeds?
Surf the web! Go to your favorite sites. Chances are they have an RSS feed available. Check RSS search directories such as Yahoo for content you are interested in.

How do I add a new feed?
When you find a site you want to subscribe to, simply look for a bright orange button labeled “XML”. Other times you will simply see a link that says: “Subscribe via RSS”. Modern web browsers like Firefox, Safari, and Opera offer automatic discovery and bookmarking of feeds. In the worst case you will just have to click on a feed link, copy and the feed address from your browser, and paste it into your RSS reading software. Most feed reading software has easier methods; usually a click or two and you have subscribed to the new feed.

I’ve got a bunch of feeds, now what?
Just like reading email, RSS reading should be fun and easy. It can also be time-consuming, so if you plan a time to read your feeds you can make sure you don’t get so hooked that you don’t get any work done!

My personal favorite feed reader is Bloglines. It is fast, web-based, and easy to learn and use. Since it is web-based it allows you to access the feeds from any computer or web-enabled device at any time. And you account is always up to date with what you have and haven’t read.

Organize your feeds
After compiling a good amount of new feeds, organize them into folders according to their content. For example, have folders called “Podcasts”, “News”, “Weather”, and “For Fun”. Bloglines, like many other feed readers allows you to organize your feeds however you like. If your feeds get too out of hand (like you go on a week-long vacation and don’t read anything), simply mark them all read with a click of a button.

On probation
One tip I learned from the popular “getting things done” web site 43 Folders involves always putting new feeds into a folder called “Probation” (link to the article). Then, if you like the feed after a few weeks you can easily move it to another area. If you decide not to continue the subscription, it is simple to remove since all your trial feeds are in one place.

Power RSS usage
If you’ve been at the RSS reading thing for a while, and you have a Bloglines account, I recommend trying a service called Chameleon offered by Joshua DavisTyler (sorry Josh!). The concept is very interesting: Chameleon filters your feeds according to how soon and how often you read them. As a result, when you login to read your feeds, the ones you tend to click on and read first are on top. Very cool!

Whatever your reading habits are, make sure to take advantage of RSS to stay on top of blogs, news, and podcasts.

In my next RSS article, I will break down some of the popular uses for RSS (and maybe some more uncoventional uses!)

You've Always Got Time For Your Aggregator

In my first post about RSS I discussed the basics of RSS and the idea of feeds and subcribing to an RSS feed. That’s all good and well, but how do you organize and read all those feeds once you have subscribed to them?

The answer is, of course, a feed reader. In the industry jargon they are called “aggregators”. This just means a program that gathers your RSS feeds and displays them nicely for you.

There are two basic types of feed readers. One is web-based and you need to be online and browsing the web to access your feeds. The other type remains on your desktop and runs along side of your other applications (even when you are off-line).

What you choose is up to you. In general the desktop RSS readers are faster and have more powerful functions. The online aggregators are usually less expensive (free!) and you can access your feeds from anywhere — even if you don’t have your computer with you.

Good RSS reading software is essential to get the most out of RSS and blog reading. Follow the links to test-drive some of the more popular RSS readers.

Popular online RSS readers:

Popular desktop RSS readers:

Google also has a new RSS reader. I have tested it, but it seemed to be in pretty early stages of development. There are plenty more, too, but these are the ones that are known as being top-notch in terms of ease of use and reliability.

If you don’t want to use a traditional RSS aggregator like these, you can subscribe to RSS feeds right in Yahoo Mail, Gmail, and other online email programs. There are also plugins for all the major desktop email programs like Outlook, Thunderbird, Eudora, etc. that allow you to read RSS feeds in your inbox just like regular mail.

So, make time for your aggregator if you haven’t already. If you don’t have one, sign up for an online account, or else download a trial of a desktop aggregator. You can also check with your email provider to see if they offer RSS reading as a part of your email service. For you first feed, you can subscribe to simpledream blog!

Next time I will take a look at how aggregators work and what some different ways are to read your news and blogs. Stay tuned….

RSS, It's What's for Breakfast!

Recently I have had lots of questions about RSS from my parents, clients, and friends. This prompted me to put together several entries here about RSS and news reading on the web. Since most major sites like CNN, NPR, New York Times, and even this site (simpledream web studio’s blog) publish new content through RSS, it is an important technology to know about.

Today, in the first article, I am going to cover the basics for those of you that have heard about RSS, or seen it mentioned online, but do not have a clue what it is.

In brief, these are some benefits of using RSS as an end-user:

  • Allows you to keep track of updates on your favorite web sites without having to constantly visit each site to see if it has changed
  • Good way to gather lots of desirable content in one place
  • No need to go looking for news, blogs, and other content on the web yourself
  • No more long lists of bookmarks in your browser to keep up with your favorite sites

Along with RSS, you will hear the word Subscription (or subscribe) used a lot. This is because in order to take advantage of RSS technology, you have to first subscribe to a news feed from a particular source – usually a web site. That site produces a feed, which is just a fancy name for the files the site publishes to show updated content or changes to a page.

RSS, which stands for “Really Simple Syndication”, is easy to understand and use. Here is how it works:

  1. A web site produces some content, be it an audio program (podcast), newsletter, blog entry, or online article
  2. The web site’s programming scheme turns the content into a nicely formatted outline showing the content and some data to describe the content (date, author’s name, and title of the article, for example)
  3. This outline format is written in a language called XML
  4. RSS is designed to read XML files and therefore enables you, as the recipient, to receive the XML files to your computer or web browser by subscribing to the RSS feed of a web site
  5. While you are sleeping, working, or playing, the feeds of web sites around the world are getting searched, grabbed, and indexed by your RSS reader software
  6. You wake up, turn on your computer, and fire up your desktop or web-based RSS reader
  7. Your news reader shows you the latest RSS feeds that it has gathered from your subscriptions and you can read, delete, and manage them as you wish

Bottom line: you will get notified by RSS when your favorites sites are updated!

Next time I will discuss the differences between online and desktop RSS readers and how to choose the best RSS program for your needs. I will also suggest some popular and easy-to-use RSS readers for you to choose from.

For now, here is more reading on the basics of RSS:
Feedburner, About RSS
Wikipedia Article

New site: REA Software

It is my pleasure to announce a recent project that has gone live!

Together with Western Sky Communications, I worked on a redesign for
REA, a commercial Real Estate contact management software developer. Martha Retallick of Western Sky Communications designed the site, and simpledream took care of XHTML, CSS, and getting the code up to speed with current web standards.

Was: gorea.com (site is not available as of April 1, 2014)

Meaningful Updates for Blog Posts

Have you ever posted a blog entry, read it back to yourself, and found that you made some errors? Happens every day to most people!

I was listening to Tantek Çelik’s talk at WE05 entitled Meaningful XHTML and he talked about a meaningful way to update your blog posts.

The basic ideas is this: instead of updating a post by going in, editing, and then saving, Tantek recommends using semantic markup to show what has been updated.

The roots of this idea are in the trust and accountability of blogs and bloggers: once it’s posted, it stays. It goes along with the idea of permalinks, which are truly intended to be “permanent links”. If you use them what you are really saying is: this is up here and I am going to take responsibility for it.

Mistakes and errors occur often, of course. How to show that you aren’t changing the original post except to update it’s content? When you update the blog post, simply wrap the old content in <del></del> and wrap the new content in <ins></ins>.

Then apply some CSS (for example):

p ins,p del { display:inline }
ins {
  background-color: #ffc;
  font-weight: bold;
  text-decoration: none;
del {
  color: #999;

If you did this on my site, this is what an updated post would look like:

AJ took a great picture of a Monarch Queen butterfly in Arizona this week.

The blog post doesn’t change, it just gets updated with new information. I love that Tantek brought this up in his podcast because I haven’t been good myself at putting this into practice.

It’s a great idea because it not only reinforces using semantic markup but also helps promote honest and responsible blogging practices.

If you are interested in hearing his whole talk, go to the WE05 podcast page and download the audio file there. Then link to the slides (see above), listen, learn, and enjoy!