This guide isn’t intended for just the beginner blogger, or for the advanced blogger. It’s intended to grasp some of the issues surrounding one of the most used, yet somewhat misunderstood aspects of a blog - your RSS feed.
What is RSS?
RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication”. It, along with a type of syndication known as Atom, are the most common forms of distribution of content that is updated on a regular basis - such as a blog or news site.
Does my site have RSS?
If you have a blog, you should have an RSS feed already. In fact, if your blog doesn’t have a feed, it would be very unusual, and you should check with your blog’s administrator or verify your settings to make sure that your RSS feed is up and working. If you’re using Blogger, then your site’s feed will have an address like this -
A lesser known feed is the comments feed - that allows your readers to keep track of all the comments posted on your blog. The address for this feed is -
What can I do with RSS?
The possibilities are pretty much endless with what you can actually do with a feed. One of the most popular things you can do with a feed is have it republished through a service like FeedBurner, where you will get statistics about your subscribers, and what they click on. You will also be able to offer subscriptions by email - either through FeedBurner or through another service called FeedBlitz.
You can also use a service like Yahoo! Pipes to combine multiple feeds into a master feed, designed to give you just the information you desire. I’ll admit that I really don’t understand how that works in particular, but some of the pre-made feeds they have are pretty interesting.
The most common thing that is done with an RSS feed is having it read in a feed reader, or aggregator. There are a number of readers that you can use, both online and offline. Below, I’ll cover the ones that I have personally used.
This is the reader that I use the most often, and I suspect that it’s the most used web-based RSS reader out there. Its brilliance comes in that it is simple to use. For example, to add a subscription, all you need to do is click the Add Subscription button; it asks for the address of the site (not the feed) you want, and it comes back with that site’s feed, or a set of options if there is more than one feed found on that site. Click Add and you’re done.
Another feature that they have an advantage over other readers is that you are able to label items, either individually or by feed. There are some things that are still missing, but it is a “labs” product, and subject to revision. You can also mark items aside for public sharing, which goes on a sort of clip blog, made of your shared items.
This was the first web-based reader I had used, before switching to Google Reader. It is somewhat more complex to use than Google Reader, however, some of the basics are there - to add a subscription, you just click Add, give it the address of the site, and it will tell you all the feeds it finds.
Unlike Google Reader, you will be able to see how many subscribers a feed has - that can be useful in selecting a feed to go with. Also, there is a search function available. However, if you’re slow at reading feeds, or have some frequently-updated feeds, it will only pick up 200 items and then stop fetching more until you clear them.
Firefox Live Bookmarks
If you use Firefox, you will have seen this from day one. The “Latest Headlines” list (from the BBC) is an example of a live bookmark. For me, the most common use of live bookmarks is for sites that give you a list of current articles - such as the BBC headlines, or an NWS statewide list of warnings and advisories. However, I find that it’s not as efficient for blogs since it doesn’t load a site’s full feed - just the headlines.
That’s not all you can do with feeds in Firefox, however. You can also use it to discover and subscribe to feeds.
Discovering Feeds with Firefox
A somewhat hidden secret about Firefox is that you can use it to subscribe to a site’s feed in any of a number of feed readers - the default is Live Bookmarks, but on installation, you can subscribe with Google Reader, Bloglines, My Yahoo!, or the offline reader you may already be using.
How it works is, when you visit a site, Firefox looks for a bit of code that says that this site has an RSS feed - it’s in the header information of the page. On my site, the code looks (in part) like this -
<link rel=”alternate” type=”application/atom+xml” title=”Sephy’s Platzish - Atom” href=”http://www.sephyroth.net/feeds/posts/default” />
When firefox sees this, your address bar will have an RSS icon added to it; here’s what it looks like, with my address in there -
If you click on it, you will be sent to that site’s feed address, and you will be able to see the contents of that feed. At the top of the page, it has the option for you to “Subscribe to this feed using [Live Bookmarks | External Program | Bloglines | My Yahoo | Google]” - you can also tell it to stay with your choice to subscribe to other feeds.
Choosing Bloglines will take you to the subscribe screen, where you can choose your options for subscribing.
Picking My Yahoo! brings you to the “Add to My Yahoo!” screen, and gives you a preview of what the feed will look like on your page.
Finally, if you elect Google, you will have the choice to put the feed on your Personalized homepage, or in Google Reader. It’s a great feature, one that I use quite often myself.
This is the only quasi-offline browser that I’ve used recently (I’ve used others, but I believe that they’re no longer in production). I only use this for a couple of feeds, mostly out of habit, but also because it was the main reader that I was using to actually get the feeds until I found out about Google Reader and Bloglines.
One major advantage that Thunderbird has over the other feed readers is that you can set the frequency with which it checks feeds for new items. You also have the option of viewing items in the feed in their original state or on the actual site that it came from.
What can I do to let my readers know about RSS?
The easiest way that you can let readers know about your site’s RSS feed is to add a “Subscribe in a Reader” link, and button, to your blog. If you’ve already set your blog’s feed up to be served through FeedBurner, it is a very simple process - if you’re on Typepad or Blogger, it’s even more simple.
If you haven’t burnt your feed yet, you should - as I mentioned earlier, burning your feed will allow you to find information about your subscribers. Also (and this probably the biggest reason for doing so), if you decide to change hosts - say from Blogger to WordPress - having your feed burnt means that you won’t lose any readers in the migration (unless they’ve been reading you from day one, but even that shouldn’t be an issue if you follow some of the advice from Snos’ post).
Burning your feed is very easy to do; I’ve posted instructions on how to do it previously. Blogger users, you will also find instructions on how to have your site’s feed automatically use FeedBurner there as well.
To create your subscribe icon, start from your feed’s Dashboard (accessible by clicking on your feed’s name when you login), and click on Publicize.
Now, you are presented with a list of choices about as long as your arm. For the most part, you will want to take one of the first two icons, as that is, for all intents and purposes, the standard icon for feeds on the web. You can choose any of the other buttons, however, and the code at the bottom will update to reflect your choice.
Users of TypePad and Blogger are able to have FeedBurner add the icon directly to your blog, as a widget. I’ve not used TypePad except to leave comments, so I apologize to y’all, but I’m sure the instructions from here on are fairly straightforward for you.
With Blogger, what happens is, when you click Go!, a new window or tab will open up and will ask you to log in to your Google Account, if you are not already logged in. If you are concerned about FeedBurner getting your password or username - there is nothing to be worried about as this is all done at Blogger’s site.
The next screen you will see asks you to confirm that you want a widget added by an external site. Here, you can (if you have multiple blogs) choose the blog you want it to appear on, give the widget a Title, and verify and/or edit the code that is being added to your blog.
- Converting Visitors Into Subscribers - Are you getting as many subscribers as you could be? The tips in this article can be useful to try to improve your subscriber count.
- Why does my Feedburner Subscriber Count Fluctuate? - One of FeedBurner’s VPs answers why you usually don’t have the same number of subscribers from day to day.
- 14 Reasons Readers Unsubscribe From Your Blog - Snoskred gives some reasons for why she’s been unsubscribing from quite a few feeds lately.