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What is an RSS Feed and do I need it?

August 25, 2010

RSS Feeds are a way for websites and blogs to distribute their content well beyond just visitors using browsers. Feeds permit subscription to regular updates (ie. The Computer Icon’s Blog Tips), delivered automatically via a web portal, news reader, or good old email. Feeds also make it possible for site content to be packaged into “widgets,” “gadgets,” mobile devices, and other bite-sized technologies that make it possible to display blogs, podcasts, and major news/sports/weather/whatever headlines just about anywhere.I am going to answer the second question first.  If you would like to receive Well, first of allHow do I use feeds?

You may be wondering what software you’ll have to install to use feeds. Never fear, the answer is likely ‘none’. If you use a modern web-browser — Firefox, Safari, or Microsoft’s new Internet Explorer 7 — you have support for feeds right there.

To use a feed, you subscribe to it. When you subscribe to a feed, you tell your browser to keep an eye on the feed and let you know when it’s updated. So how do you subscribe to a feed?

Do you recognise these icons?

A cropped screen shot of a Firefox browser window; the feed discovery icon is highlighted.
Firefox: an orange icon appears in the address bar when a page offers a feed.
A cropped screen shot of a Safari browser window; the feed discovery icon is highlighted.
Safari: a blue icon with the letters ‘RSS’ appears in the address bar when a page offers a feed.
A cropped screen shot of an Internet Explorer browser window; the feed discovery icon is highlighted.
Internet Explorer: the feed icon is coloured orange when a page offers a feed.

In Firefox, Safari, and Internet Explorer 7 respectively, these icons let you know whether a feed is available for the page you’re viewing. For the BBC News front page, the icons show up to let you know there is a feed for the latest headlines.

Using feeds in Firefox

Firefox’s live bookmarks allow you to subscribe to a feed. If you see the feed icon appear, clicking on it will give you the option of subscribing to the feed as a live bookmark.

A live bookmark is like a folder of bookmarks; once you add it to your bookmarks menu you will see a new folder named after the feed, and in it a list of bookmarks — each corresponding to an article in the feed.

This list will update whenever a new article is added. So for BBC News, when the latest headlines change, so will your folder of bookmarks.

Using feeds in Safari

Safari’s feed-handling is similar to that of Firefox. When a page offers a feed you’ll see the blue ‘RSS’ logo to the right of the address bar. Click it, and Safari will show you the contents of the feed in your browser window.

An example of Apple’s Safari browser displaying a feed.
Reading a syndication feed in Safari.

To subscribe to the feed, click the ‘Add Bookmark…’ links at the bottom of the grey sidebar. It will appear in your bookmarks menu like any other, with one exception: if there are new articles in the feed, Safari will let you know by displaying the number of new articles in the bookmark’s name.

Using feeds in Internet Explorer 7

Again, Internet Explorer handles feeds in a similar way to Firefox and Safari. When a page offers a feed, the icon (shown in the screen shot above) lights up. Click the icon and you’ll see a page with the contents of the page.

To subscribe to the feed, click the ‘Subscribe to this feed’ link. The feed is then added to your favorites, under the ‘Feeds’ heading.

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