What is RSS?

If you regularly swing by Facebook or Twitter, chances are that a substantial part of your news consumption comes from those sources. Not many people know, however, that when social media was taking baby steps, RSS was king of the information game.


These days, much of digital information is curated by algorithms that decide whether a piece of news is relevant for a particular reader or not. Although you can build your social media feeds around certain topics, people or news outlets, the insights you get are still tailored top-down and some of them are inevitably lost in the process.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s possible to get relevant and quality information via social media. But if you want better control over the content you consume, RSS is rather well-placed to address this need. Without further ado, let’s learn a thing or two about this technology.

What is RSS?

Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of RSS, it’s worth noting that the technology itself dates back all the way to 1999. Considering that its age counts in “internet years”, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that RSS is not exactly as trendy as it used to be. Despite that, and against all naysayers prophesying its demise, many people still prefer to stick with it. According to a poll conducted by The Verge, almost 68% out of over 14,000 participants stated that they still use an RSS reader for content consumption.

In layman’s terms, RSS (short for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication) turns content from sources like websites or blogs into plain text. The end product is an RSS feed/channel, which is a simple document that consists of full or summarized bits of information. This information can be anything from blog posts to articles, or whatever the source provides. In other words, RSS extracts the meaty parts of a web source and strips it down from any bells and whistles, think ads or newsletter pop-ups.

hate paperwork

Once a website has been converted into a feed, you can then pull the resulting document into an app and access its contents. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Why Should I Care About RSS?

At first glance, RSS may seem awfully outdated by today’s standards. It doesn’t encourage the infinite-scroll mechanism, fails to accommodate more complex or interactive websites and doesn’t use algorithms to prioritize content. This simplicity, however, is one of its greatest strengths.

How many times have you tried to read an interesting article on the web, only to get interrupted by a newsletter-subscription box, a flashy ad or an animated element on the page? I know where you’re coming from. It’s increasingly difficult to consume valuable content online without eventually falling into the rabbit hole of unexplored links and alluring but otherwise time-wasting stuff. Conversely, RSS is much like reading a traditional newspaper, albeit with a few minor improvements over the original.

Let’s say you subscribe to a feed of a popular website for small-business owners. Every time an article is published or a new post appears on their blog, the fresh content is automatically pulled into your news reader. Normally, if you were interested in determining if a website has been updated, you would have to visit that website over and over again. RSS solves this problem.

Last but not least, if privacy is your primary concern, subscribing to feeds doesn’t require giving out personal details, or even your e-mail address for that matter. The communication happens directly between the content publisher and your reader app. Many RSS aggregators don’t even require creating a user account since they are simple web-browser plugins.

How Does RSS Work?

Now comes the fun part. If you want to jump on the RSS bandwagon, you need two things (just two!) – a URL address of the feed you want to subscribe to and a feed reader that will aggregate and display the content.

Back in the day when RSS was rocking the content world, most websites and blogs would simply place a feed icon in the footer or header of their homepages. Users could click the icon to get a direct address of the feed and add it to their reader apps. Nowadays, finding the familiar orange rectangle is somewhat more challenging as publishers opt for other means of content syndication.



“So what can I do?”

This is the exact questions I was asking myself when I decided to give RSS a try. Fortunately, many publishers still maintain their RSS channels, even if they’re somewhat difficult to find. There are several ways to track the elusive feed address, but two of them are especially effective.

  • You can use Google to search for “website name” + “RSS” to find the feed address of any website (if supported). For example, “NYT” + “RSS” search results yield the New York Times RSS directory which holds separate feeds for columns like “business,” “sports” or “science.”
  • Another method that should give you good results is to add the”/feed” suffix to the URL address of a website. For Freshbooks, this gives us “https://www.freshbooks.com/blog/feed” …and that’s it!

With the feed URL covered, let’s move to the second item on our list, which is an RSS reader. Technical jargon and boolean magic aside, an RSS reader makes it possible to collect all your favorite channels in one place and access their contents. Many modern aggregators allow users to categorize, search and ultimately self-curate their lists for an even better experience.

As far as readers are concerned, there are a number of options available. Some of them can be installed as plugins for popular web browsers (look for “RSS” in the Chrome Store or Mozilla Add-ons). Others come as mobile apps for smartphones and tablets, which is probably the most convenient option these days. The best part about modern aggregators is that many have built-in search capabilities so you don’t have to add feeds manually.

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There is no “best” reader that would suit everybody; each app will give you a slightly different experience, but you’ll eventually find your match. You can try Feedly, Inoreader or The Old Reader for starters. Be sure to check out this article on the Zapier Blog for more suggestions.

RSS Quick-Start Guide:

  • Find the URL of a feed you’d like to subscribe to
  • Copy/add this URL to your reader app of choice
  • You can now read new content on your reader
  • Your reader will notify you when the feed is updated with new content

Conclusion

RSS has come a long way since its inception, but it seems to be doing surprisingly well for such a matured piece of technology. There is definitely some magic in its simplicity and unadulterated reading experience, so if you’re looking for an alternative to conventional media consumption, give it a try. Maybe it will capture your attention as it has mine.

This post was updated in March 2019.



about the author

Freelance Contributor Dawid is a freelance copywriter and blogger at OctoScribe where he helps B2B tech companies talk human instead of code. When he's not writing about tech, he's enjoying the simplicity of analog photography and daring bike trips with his wife.