Monday, 13 July 2009

Using feeds: introduction / guide for absolute beginners 1

This is a primer on how to use feeds / newsfeeds. I’ve done detailed posts on feeds before; this is just a brief intro for the intelligent non-techie, based on helping a friend get started using feeds, as there seems to be more non-geek interest in it now. Feeds finally going mainstream?

This first post (of a series) is a basic overview of feeds. Later posts will be more tutorial like, and will cover step by step how to use and subscribe to feeds (using the free Google Reader), including troubleshooting tips - all from the viewpoint of a feed user (rather than feed publisher, which was my previous main focus).

What are feeds or RSS feeds, what use are they?

  1. Instead of having to go round manually checking your fave news websites or blogs regularly for added or updated content, just fetch their content to you in one place, and check that. Examples:
    1. News or press releases
    2. Publications – papers or reports issued
    3. Forthcoming events
    4. What’s New page (combining all the above, perhaps)
    5. Blog posts.

  2. Feeds are much quicker to use, not just because you don’t have to visit multiple websites anymore, but because (at least on Google Reader) you can skim through all the latest “headlines” at once, on one page (rather than opening each folder individually). Then, you just open the ones you’re interested in reading further. Potentially feeds are a real time saver.

    Analogy: imagine your email has folders for different types of emails, and all incoming emails get “filed” into the appropriate folders automatically on arrival. But one “folder” called “All new mail” has all recent email for all folders; you just look at that one folder to skim the subject lines of all new emails, without having to file any emails manually. You can still look at folders one by one if you like, or search across all folders; the “All new mail” folder (“All items” in Google Reader) is just a convenient way to see what’s new fast, at a glance.

  3. You fetch (subscribe to) the content you want via feeds / newsfeeds / RSS feeds / Atom feeds (people use those words interchangeably to stand for the same thing).

  4. Some feeds are full (a complete copy of the substantive content on the equivalent webpage), some are partial (only an excerpt, and you have to click through to the source website if you want to read the full item). Most feed users prefer sites to offer full feeds, as it’s more convenient for the user. (On ACE I offer the option of full feeds.)

  5. Software that regularly fetches the content for you and aggregates it all in one place is called a feed reader / news reader / aggregator. The reader can be software on your computer, or it can be on the Web (where you can login to it from any computer).

  6. You can also use feeds not just to track new publications, but also to get alerts or updates on topics you’re interested in, right in your feed reader - e.g. mentions of a particular phrase in Google News or on websites or blog posts. Including from sites you don’t subscribe to.

    Those are really feeds for the results of periodic searches. (To set one up - just do the search, and subscribe to the search results.)

How do I subscribe to feeds?

  1. Sign up for a feed reader, or download and install one (more info on feed readers). Most are free.
  2. Add the feeds you want to your reader (how to subscribe to feeds).

I’ll be doing a separate post later on the basics of exactly how to set up and use feeds on Google Reader, ie a step by step tutorial – look out for that if you want to learn more.

But trying to subscribe for a feed doesn’t work!

Too many sites are awful in terms of their support for feed and feed use. Even sites that provide feeds don’t always (and they should) provide them in such a way that feed readers can “get” the feeds automatically from knowing the website’s main web address (URL).

This is a source of frustration for many new users of feeds. I’ll cover how to troubleshoot and work around feed subscription problems in a future post. (Update: link to that post added.)

What if the site or page I want to subscribe to doesn’t provide a feed?

There are ways to get updates of changes to webpages with no associated feeds.

Again, I’ll be covering a workaround in a future post.

But I want more info now!!

The curious or keen may if they wish read my detailed introduction to feeds.

No comments: