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Using RSS

RSS is a publication mechanism that websites can use to provide their content in a slightly different form. It can be used in some very, very interesting ways.

In this video excerpt from a recent Ask Leo! webinar I’ll show how RSS and Google’s RSS reading website can be used to keep track of a large number of websites and information streams with ease.

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Good day, everyone! We are here for webinar number nine. We’re going to talk about RSS, Google Reader, keeping track of RSS subscriptions, and with some time left over, we’ll talk about a little bit of search, search tips, making search effective. It’s one of those things that I think is just a good skill to become better versed in.

So with those as our topics and if we have any time left over at the end, we will of course take a look at whatever questions you may have for me. So with that as the preamble, RSS – let’s talk about RSS .

What is RSS? RSS stands for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication. It really depends on who you’re talking to and what they’re background really is.

But neither of those are particularly important if all you’re trying to do is really use is RSS. RSS is another publication mechanism that websites can use to provide their content in a slightly different form that can be used in some very, very interesting ways.

Now Ask Leo! has had an RSS feed since day one and I’m going to use it to begin with, to show you what to look for and what an RSS feed itself can actually look like.

Down here at the bottom of the page, you’ll see that there’s an icon. That is an icon that you’ll actually see on many different websites. It’s the standard RSS icon. You may or may not actually see the letters RSS next to it. It’s the icon that you care about and you’ll notice that when I hover over it that it is in fact a link.

I’m going to click on that link. So what we’re looking at is the contents of the Ask Leo! RSS feed as displayed through a service called Feedburner. Many sites, myself included, use Feedburner as way to produce RSS feeds in a standard way that can be used almost ubiquitously by almost any RSS reader or service.

So the top part up here about subscribing and so forth, I’m going to ignore that for just a minute. The really interesting part is this Current Feed Content. So, you’ll see that what I’m showing here are the first parts of my most recent articles. So, a couple of days ago, I published this article on how to use Facebook safely.

The day before that or earlier that day, I published an article on deleting email. You can see that I include here the first couple of paragraphs of the article and then the link to go see the existing article, the full article on the site.

What the feed has is typically the ten most recent articles. That’s significant because it’s updated every time that a new article is published. So by monitoring a feed (and we’ll look at how to do that in a minute), you will automatically get notification or automatically see when a website you’ve subscribed to has produced some new content.

What you see up here now are these subscribe now links. There are many, many ways to view RSS feeds. I’m going to focus on Google Reader mostly because I find it the most useful, ubiquitous approach to looking at feeds, but as you can tell, there are many other different places; there even some stand-alone programs you can install on your PC that are specifically about reading, staying up-to-date, and managing RSS subscriptions.

So, I’m going to click on this Google link here…so Google, as it turns out, has two different ways of dealing with RSS feeds. One is to add it to your Google homepage which I think is iGoogle or the Google page that you can customize with whatever kind of content you might want to have.

That’s useful for maybe one, two, or at most three RSS feeds. For the record, I personally track maybe close to a hundred and a Google homepage becomes significantly less handy when you’re dealing with that many. So that’s why we’re going to head over here to Google Reader.

Now, I’ve already logged into my Google account. So what’s going to happen now is basically, we’ve been subscribed. Those article snippets that we saw when we were looking at the naked feed, are now actually presented here in Google Reader and as we read each one, obviously you can choose whether or not you’re going to go to the full site, but as we read each one, normally, ok, I’m going to back up here, normally you would see an ‘unread’ count here. But of course in testing this yesterday, I’ve of course already read these items so it’s marked as unread.

I’ll explain this Corgi one down here in a minute because that’s actually a feature I want to go into in a little bit more detail. But in general, what will happen is the feed will show here, show you ‘x’ number of unknown, excuse me, unread posts from that site. As you move through and read them, they’re automatically removed from this list, so that when you’re all done they’re obviously much like email, there’s no unread posts so I know that I’m up-to-date.

If I come back here say tomorrow or Tuesday, after a couple of more items have been posted then that number will be not zero. It will actually be a bolded number like you see here and the unread messages will be displayed at the top, the unread posts from the website.

So, first thing about RSS is it’s a single place, excuse me, RSS is a way to keep track of new posts, new items from a website that supports RSS. Now, by itself, that’s probably marginally useful. Where it gets useful, of course, is when you’re tracking many, many sites.

Most blogs (in fact, I would daresay all blogs) have with it an RSS feed that you can use in this way. Have a look at some of the blogs that you may visit on a regular basis and you may find that there’s an RSS icon. You can subscribe to that blog’s feed and have all of the blogs show up here in an RSS reader and you’ll know that you’re up-to-date on all of them by simply going to a single place.

So, blogs and so forth, yea, that’s kind of interesting. When things start to get a little bit more interesting are when we start looking at other things that you may or may not realize have RSS capability.

I’m going to YouTube. So let’s say that you have a favorite YouTube poster that you are subscribed to on YouTube. So what this does is it presents you in YouTube the new posts when you go to your page on YouTube; it has nothing whatsoever to do with RSS.

However, a slightly less documented feature of YouTube is that you can, in fact, create an RSS fee for a particular user. So what I’m doing here is you can see that YouTube URL for this particular user, – I’m not going to modify that to be

Now, this gets weird and you’ll see this from time-to-time. This is the actual contents of an RSS feed. So when this happens, you can see there is no  easy way to actually get the one-click subscription that we did with the feed that came from Ask Leo! There’s lots of technical reasons why this happens and I won’t bore you with the details because it’s nothing you really have any control over.

However, what you can do instead is this time I’m going to copy the user URL,; I’m now going to go back to Google Reader and I’m going to click on this Subscribe button. What that allows me to do is to actually enter the URL for the subscription myself.

In this case, I’m starting off with that user’s URL to YouTube and I’m modifying it again the same way that I did before:

Now, we now have an RSS feed of videos from this particular YouTube user. What this means is that every time Rachel posts a new video, I will get notified of it here. If I click through and read some of these, in a moment you’ll see the unread count start to decrease because by scrolling through these, it’s now thinking that I am reading them. So if I go back to the top, everything that’s been sent here; everything that’s in her feed has technically been read.

If she posts a new video today or tomorrow on YouTube, knowing nothing about RSS, knowing nothing about the people who are following her on YouTube or elsewhere, I will find out about that new video the next time I open up Google Reader.

For the record, Rachel’s English, one of my current passions is English literacy. For various reasons, I’ve come to believe that it is extremely important in our increasingly internet-connected world…specifically English for folks who may not speak it natively and so much of the internet is in English.

So that is the example that I’m using here. She actually does a very good job for people who are having trouble understanding why English is or is pronounced the way it is by giving some really, really good examples.

So that’s YouTube. Again, any user, in fact there are a number of different variations but for the moment we’ll leave it at users. You can follow any YouTube user, including Ask Leo! which is actually LeoNot using RSS in this way.

I’m going to take a look at a different site. A friend of mine runs I realize that most of you are probably PC users and that’s OK but what I want to do here (actually, I need to do this in a different browser) to show two different things.

We were running Chrome and I’m actually more familiar with Firefox’s abilities in this regard. So MacMost has RSS feeds. But you’ll notice that there actually aren’t any RSS feeds listed on the page; you don’t see any of the RSS icons. This unfortunately happens from time-to-time.

However, Firefox and I do believe Internet Explorer and Chrome (to some extent) sometimes, if the website is created correctly, have the ability to show you the feeds that are available for that page.

So what I’ve done here is clicked on the little drop-down arrow in Firefox’s bookmark icon; that drops the Bookmarks menu and you can see that there’s our famous RSS icon along with a subscribe to this page item.

And you can see that Gary, my friend who runs MacMost has put together actually several different RSS feeds. You can subscriber to everything or just the video podcast or just the HD version of video podcast, the MacAnswers audio podcast, etc. Even forum topics; you’ll find that a number of forum – a fair amount of the software on which forums are based actually support RSS to varying degrees.

I have seen some that allow you to create RSS feeds for any new post; new posts that contain a certain term and so forth. Gary’s got a subscribe here for his forum topics that I assume based only on the name would probably only give you new topics when they get posted to the discussion forums.

But you can see two things that are important here: one, a website can have many different RSS feeds that can be very useful for different things. You’ll see another application of that in just a moment.

But, what’s important here is even if the website doesn’t necessarily have an RSS icon on its homepage, there still may be RSS feeds available. The browser has the ability (when the page is encoded correctly) to actually list those for you. If I’m not mistaken, in Internet Explorer, these are referred to as live bookmarks.

In other words, bookmarks that show you what happens, what is changing on a page, on a site, when new content is posted. And that’s really all that RSS is.

So another application that is perhaps more interesting to more of you is this isn’t related to only tech (actually, I’m going to do this back in Chrome since I know that I’m logged into Google there).

RSS isn’t only about technology. Any site that publishes information can use RSS to make their information available. News sites, specifically, are wonderful examples of this. I’m using CNN as my example site here. You’ll notice that there are in fact no RSS icons once again.

However, down at the bottom of the site is a very interesting little link that says RSS. So if we click on that, what we find is that CNN is also providing multiple different RSS feeds to present new content as it becomes available based on the topics that you might be interested in.

So, for example, I’m going go ahead here and click on this Top Stories one. We’ll go ahead and use Google once again. Add it to my Google Reader and now what I have is essentially a breaking news feed. Anytime that I want to find out what’s going on, I can just come here and see the news that CNN has published via RSS.

Now, it’s interesting in that there have now been cases…one of the ways I measure the progression of technology in my life is how I find out about breaking news events. In the past, it’s been satellite TV; then it was an internet website and now, more often than not, I will find out about breaking news via an RSS feed as it pops up in Google Reader because I tend to view Google Reader several times throughout the day.

I’m going to go ahead and add the technology news feed from CNN as well. And now, we have technology-related stories as produced by CNN. As you can tell, the technology topic tends to be a little bit more stale. Only because, I’m sure, that unless they are breaking news over a weekend, the technology people have the weekend off.

On the other hand, with CNN’s main feed, you can see that there is news going on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This is one way of staying on top of all of that.

Now, I’m going to show you one of my local news stations. This is one of the local television stations here in Seattle and they too, have an RSS feed. In fact, you’ll often find the RSS feed along with all the other social media sharing, connecting icons. There it is – the RSS feed icon. They too don’t have the information that allows the web browser, in this case, to display it in a sensible way.

So what we end up doing in this case is simply going back. Since this is just a link, the thing to do is to right-click on the icon; copy the link address; we’ll go back to Google Reader and hit Subscribe and paste the link in. Now when I hit Add, there’s the breaking news from my local news station. You can see that they are basically doing news all weekend long.

News is one of those things that I find very interesting. As I also said at the very beginning of this little talk, I have subscribed to many different blogs, content publishers who produce content on a very regular basis that I just don’t want to go visit a website, or twenty or fifty websites every day. I just don’t have the time to do that.

This is a way to aggregate all of those websites into a single place so that when I login to Google Reader I can see: A) who’s got something new. Typically, you’ll find you either have a short snippet or summary of what the new content is all about and if I decide I want to see that, I can just click on it to go through and read the actual story on the website that just published it.

So, so far, it’s been all about new content. Basically, all we’ve done so far is we’ve taken several different websites, looked at their RSS feeds to see how they publish their information; how they make notification of new information and use that to build up a list of websites that we’re essentially just keeping an eye on; everything from CNN to new uploads from YouTube to any number of different things.

Now we’re going to use a different feature of Google and since I can’t remember the URL, I’ll simply do a search for it.

Google Alerts are really interesting if you are – if you want to watch the web for things. That’s probably about the best way I can describe it. I’ll use one example that I think will make it fairly clear.

I’ll make a search query for Leo Notenboom – my name. I’m going to have it return everything; it’s going to do it once a day; it’s going to give me only the best results. In other words, it’s going to filter out some spam and some other things, but I’m going to change the ‘Deliver to’.

Now, you can set up Google Alerts to email you these search results once a day or however often; how many options they give you here. However, an alternative is to say ‘Feed’. So you’ll notice the ‘As it happens’ is the default. So what it’s done is it will create an RSS feed that gives you the search results for the term you’ve entered on a regular basis. So, I’m going to ‘Create Alert’ and here is the RSS link to deliver to Google Reader.

So, what I have now is I have this Google Alerts set up for my name. Now, you can tell that Google Alerts needs to actually run its processes. What I expect they do is they batch up all of these searches for all of these alerts and run them periodically so when you just create a feed and add it to your Google Reader, there may not be any results right away. In fact, there may not be results for a few hours. However, that’s why I have this other Google Alert here that you saw.

This is a Google Alert for the word ‘Corgi’. So what this has done is sometime overnight, since I’ve put this together, it ran a Google search for the word Corgi and returned the top results. I can go through these and read them all. You can tell that the unread count has now gone to zero. Sometime later today or tomorrow, that unread count will go back up because the search; the alert that you’re running is always running. So the next time you fire up Google Reader, if there’s been a new page posted that mentions the word ‘Corgi’ that shows up in Google Reader under these Google Alerts.

Same thing for the ego search on my name. The Google Alert for Leo Notenboom which is in fact one of the searches that I run regularly will automatically show up unread new pages that mention my name or one of the two other people on the planet that I know of named Leo Notenboom and will let me see what page I was mentioned on and let me go take a look at it.

So it’s an easy way and a quick way of staying on top of not just specific web pages or websites as we’re doing with these other feeds, but by using Google Alerts, you can now keep track of terms that Google can find across the entire internet.

One last topic: to go back to Ask Leo! on this. One of the selling points of RSS is that it is immune to spam. By that, I mean you subscribed to an RSS feed; it’s displaying in Google Reader; the delivery is direct. You only see what you asked to see and only what the publisher publishes.

Which means that in one form, RSS can be considered an alternative to email. Now it’s not that great for person-to-person email. While technically I suppose it would be possible, having an RSS feed of email I might send to you isn’t really practical.

With one exception. And that would be something like my newsletter. So hopefully, you’re all subscribed to the newsletter and you’re getting it twice a week, but an alternative way to get it is in fact to use an RSS feed specifically for the newsletter.

So you can click on this; we’re back to the Feedburner version of this preview of the content of the newsletter. I’m going to go ahead and have Google be the reader for that and now in addition to Ask Leo!, the feed that shows you all of the new articles that I post, this Ask Leo! 2012 newsletters shows you the newsletters as they come out. They actually publish at 8 am Pacific time here in the U.S; it’s actually when the newsletter is scheduled to be mailed and surprisingly at 8 am Pacific time, the newsletter archive on the website is  also made available.

A side effect of doing that is that the RSS feed for the newsletter from the website is also updated and your newsletter is available right here actually in full content through Google Reader – the only thing you’re missing, by the way, if you subscribe to the newsletter via email.

In this particular case, the email newsletter differs ever so slightly from the RSS feed of the newsletter which is really a mirror of the website copy of the newsletter archive.

As a content publisher, someone who writes for a living and publishes his content on the internet, RSS feeds actually present an interesting problem. And that problem is this, if the RSS feed contains your full content, in other words, the entire article, it is very easy for those with less than good intentions to take that RSS feed and republish it on a website of their own.

So for example, if I were to publish the full content of an article in my RSS feed, that article would appear and as it turns out, did appear within minutes on other websites around the internet without attribution to me.

Now, as a content publisher, that’s concerning. That’s why you’ll find most RSS feeds will have a summary or just the first couple of paragraphs of an article and encourage you then to click through to the website to read the full content. It’s a way of protecting (somewhat) the ownership of the content in question.

Now, that relates to this newsletter because in the case of the newsletter, I honestly don’t care if people republish it. As you’ve seen already, it links back to my articles. So, I think that’s a half an hour on RSS and RSS feeds. I think I’m going to stop here just a moment and ask if there are any questions relating to RSS, RSS feeds, maybe a specific site that does or doesn’t have an RSS feed.

When will this be available to read again? Typically, the webinars, depending on how many segments we break them into, will appear on the website over the course of the following month. Given that this particular one is my guess, going to have two segments, it’s conceivable that this particular one could show up within the next week or two.

Leo, what is the IE reader if you are getting scared of using Google. It’s not an IE Reader; I mean, you would use Google Reader inside of Internet Explorer as well. Reader is actually just a website that Google provides. It’s not tied to the browser; you don’t have to use Chrome to use Reader; you can use it with any browser.

Let me login here real quick and you’ll see. And yes, I have multi-factor authentication turned on in this account. So what you hear in the background is me grabbing my phone and typing in the current authorization code. So here we are in Google Reader displayed in Internet Explorer.

Alternatives to Google Reader itself (if you choose to want to avoid Google properties) that you could use with any other browser – I don’t have a short list; I know that there are others. Newsgator, I think, is one that’s been around forever and does a really good aggregation, much like Google Reader does.

I will say that to the best of my knowledge that Google Reader is that by far the most supported and used RSS aggregator around. So, would be one place to go and take a look. There are also specifically RSS readers for your PC or your Mac. They are programs that you can download and install. I ran one for many years.

And, in fact, there are RSS applications that will run on smartphones. So on your Android or on your iPhone, go into the corresponding market and you should be able to browse specifically for RSS Reader.

If one builds a website with RSS functionality, is it possible to see how many people are subscribe to your feed? Yes and no. The short answer is, if you just have an RSS feed on your site, the answer is ‘no’ or very close to no because it’s extremely difficult to determine how many people are subscribed.

You’ll notice that when we went to the RSS feed for Ask Leo!, you’ll notice that it’s not a podcast but it’s a feed powered by Feedburner. Feedburner is a service; they were purchased, I think they were purchased last year or the year before by Google so it is a Google service.

And what you do is you, as the website owner, link your RSS feed into Feedburner and then you provide the link to people who want to subscribe as a Feedburner URL. So you’ll notice that if I were to…so you can see here that the actual feed that you’re linking to is not the feed from It’s actually from

That’s because I set this up. The reason I set this up is to specifically answer exactly that question. I can now tell how many people are subscribed to my feed, RSS feed; how many people are subscribed to the base RSS feed that shows new article publishing and I can show a separate subscription how many people are subscribed to the newsletter through RSS.

Feedburner also provides another number of interesting statistics like how many people were clicking on the links that were displayed in the feeds that we’re looking at; how many people are subscribed but never look so it’s a lot of good information about your feeds if you want any kind of tracking about the amount of subscriber counts and so forth for feeds. That’s the direction I would actually strongly recommend that you go to.

Can you walk us through Outlook RSS a little? Uh, no – to be blunt. I have not played with the RSS in Outlook and I don’t actually have Outlook installed on this particular machine. I will say that Outlook is, if I understand it right, they have an RSS reader implemented. I believe Thunderbird has an RSS reader implemented in its core functionality. So, like I said, there are a lot of RSS readers out there.

For those of you who are considering an alternative to Google Reader, just search for ‘RSS reader’ and I think you’ll find that there are many quite reasonable alternatives. But I’m sorry, I just don’t have Outlook set up here nor do I have the familiarity to do it justice.

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