Lifehacker 101: RSS Feeds

An RSS reader is an essential tool for anyone who likes to be kept abreast of news as it happens and/or updates from their favourite websites. It will make you more organised, ensure you don’t miss valuable information and save lots of time that would otherwise be spent manually checking websites. If you’re new to RSS, here’s what you need to know, including the best RSS readers in a post Google Reader world.

What does RSS stand for and why is it useful?

RSS is an acronym for ‘Rich Site Summary’, although many webmasters prefer the more literal ‘Really Simple Syndication’, which is a good explanation of how it benefits readers and publishers.

RSS readers provide a standardised web feed for all your favourite websites, allowing you to receive automatic updates whenever they publish something new; complete with story summaries and links to each article. It’s essentially a notification system that alerts you to the things you like to read the moment they are published.

Everything is aggregated together, so you don’t have to hop between different websites checking for updates — instead, it’s all served up for you in one clutter-free list.

How does RSS work?

To take advantage of RSS feeds, the first thing you need to do is select a piece of RSS reader software. These are programs that run in the background and automatically update whenever something new is published on a website that you’ve subscribed to.

There are hundreds of different options available, ranging from traditional desktop clients to cloud-based webapps for use on multiple devices. You can even get widget-style readers that work inside your inbox or browser. You can find a list of our favourite RSS readers here, although ignore any mention of Google Reader (see below).

Once you’ve plumped for a particular reader, the next step is to visit your favourite websites and subscribe to their RSS feeds, indicated by the orange RSS icon. This will typically be displayed somewhere on the front page alongside other online subscription options like Twitter and Facebook.

How is RSS different to social networking feeds?

Most websites will post links to their articles on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which you can receive by subscribing to their feed. However, there’s no guarantee that a story you might be interested in will get posted — even when they are, the link will quickly disappear into the oversaturated social networking void, making it very easy to miss. Most websites also fill their social networking feeds with additional clutter — reader-directed questions, competition reminders and other miscellaneous chit-chat will often outnumber the actual story links.

In other words, while social networking sites are fine for random discovery, they are a poor option if you want to keep abreast of every update a website makes.

What’s all this about Google Reader I’ve been hearing about?

One of the most popular RSS Readers is Google Reader, which is unfortunately slated for destruction on July 1, 2013 due to declining usage (according to Google). In other words, it’s absolutely imperative that you choose something — anything — other than Google Reader.

Some popular cloud-based alternatives to Google Reader include NetVibes, NewsBlur, Pulse and Feedly.

Desktop-based RSS options include FeedDemon (for Windows) and Reeder (for Mac). You can read a more comprehensive overview of each reader here.

Further reading:

The Best Google Reader Alternatives

Ask LH: How Can I Organise My RSS Feeds So They’re More Manageable?

How To Build Your Own Syncing RSS Reader With Tiny Tiny RSS

Need A Google Reader Replacement? Quite RSS Could Be For You

Feedly Adds New Features To Help Users Transition From Google Reader

How Many Users Does Google Reader Have?

Use Outlook As A Google Reader Replacement

Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?

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