Using RSS to keep track of your web
If you are interested in regularly consuming content from a particular website, or want keep track of keyword searches without having to input them time and time again, the topic of my guest post this week, RSS (Really Simple Syndication), may very well be of interest to you.
Most people view web-based content through a browser such as Firefox or Internet Explorer. If readers don't want to miss newly published content, they have to remember to frequently check each site they want to follow. Sometimes there is new content, other times there isn't - a colleague of mine likens it to chickens walking around in circles pecking at whatever is on the ground in front of them, an analogy he makes to point out that this is almost certainly not the most efficient or affective way of finding, keeping track of and consuming new content.
A more efficient way is to put yourself at the centre of the flow of information by subscribing to RSS feeds, sometimes called ‘web feeds’, of the websites and other content sources you're interested in monitoring. An RSS feed looks like a stripped down version of a website - the design and formatting isn't normally visible in the feed, only the text, images and other content elements.
Many times, where content is available as an RSS feed, a distinctive orange button can be found on the page. Other times, an RSS logo appears next to the URL in the address bar at the top of a browser.
Subscribing to an RSS feed is like ordering a subscription to a magazine or newspaper although, in the case of RSS, it's nearly always free. Every time new content is published, a copy is sent out to all subscribers, meaning those with a subscription needn't ever miss anything.
To subscribe to an RSS feed, users can click on the RSS button found on a page or in their browser's address window, which should open a new page showing the address of the RSS feed to be subscribed to and, often, a pull down menu of different RSS readers so that the subscription can be made with just one click. The other way to subscribe to an RSS feed is to copy the URL of the page or feed you want to subscribe to and paste it into the ‘add feed’ form within your chosen RSS reader.
Once subscribed to a feed, each time there is new content it will appear in your reader. Most readers also allow users to mark content as read or unread, to share content with others, and to bookmark any content they might want to return to later.
It's not just content sites that offer RSS feeds - many social media and search sites also do. So, for example, if you're interested in getting an alert every time a user on Twitter mentions the name of your organisation, you simply input that search once and subscribe to the feed. You can also subscribe to feeds from, to mention just a few, flickr tags and technorati blog searches - meaning that every time a photo or blog is posted about the topic you've defined in your original search, you're alerted to that content.
If you'd like to learn more about RSS, there's an excellent, easy-to-follow video on the Common Craft Show that's well worth viewing.
RSS isn't just useful for subscribing to web feeds, it's also the delivery mechanism used by many social tools and social networks to share content. So, for example, when I author a blog post on one of my own blogs, it uses RSS to alert a service called twitterfeed that I've done so. Twitterfeed then fires out a tweet with the title and link of that post. The RSS feed of my blog also feeds into Facebook and LinkedIn so that my contacts on those services can see what I've written. I also used to use another service, talkr, which took my RSS feed and created a computer generated audio file of the content. This made it possible for me to offer a podcast of my blog on Apple's iTunes Store without ever having to actually record a thing myself.
It's also possible to aggregate and remix RSS feeds using services such as xfruits and Yahoo Pipes to create custom feeds of content, for example, all news stories from ten different UK-based news sources which mention "Big Green Challenge" or any other keyword you define.
RSS is a really powerful tool in that it helps users to better organise the flow of content around them and, for those creating content, offers an extremely flexible stream of content for use by other people and services.
Why mention it here, in a series of guest posts about social media? Because not only do most blogs and social tools offer RSS output, it's also - in my books at least - an indispensable tool for helping bloggers to keep track of the conversations their contributions are part of. Finding, subscribing and reading what others are saying is the first step towards making successful contributions yourself.
Quoting and linking to that content is the next step and, once you've gained confidence and understanding, you can begin to add value by contextualising those quotes and links or voicing an opinion about them. Joining into an already active conversation by listening and contributing, at least initially, with gestures such as a smile or nod is, in most instances, far more socially acceptable than bursting into the conversation by interrupting with strong views of your own. And this is exactly how you can use RSS - to listen, to inform yourself, to help you keep track of the views and contributions of others, to provide material to link to and to later contextualise or comment upon.
This is the eighth post in a series I've been publishing here on the Big Green Challenge Blog. Other posts have looked at a range of social tools and techniques for telling stories, finding new audiences and engaging with stakeholders. You'll find an index on last week's post, which provided an in-depth guide to blogging.