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RSS and Newsreader Tutorial, Part 4: Loading the news feed into your newsreader

by Brian Brown (follow me on Twitter): March 20, 2007

Certain types of websites create an RSS feed. What types? Nearly every blog, most news websites, many search websites, and "social media" websites where the public is constantly updating the content of the site. A great example of a social media website is where the public can upload and share photos. This website creates an RSS feed that allows you to subscribe to photos from, say, Janesville, Wisconsin. That way, whenever someone uploads a photo and "tags" the photo as being a photo of Janesville, I can automatically be informed of it in my RSS newsreader.

Regardless of what type of website you want to keep track of, in order to track it you need to load its RSS feed into your RSS newsreader. There are hundreds of RSS newsreader programs, most of them are free to use. My current favorite is Bloglines because there is nothing to download (it is web-based) and because it is straight-forward.

Keep in mind that no matter which newsreader you choose, you are not locked into that newsreader. There is a very easy way to transfer all your feeds from one newsreader to another which I'll talk about in Part 6.

How to get the feed into your newsreader
As I mentioned in the last part of this series, browsers are making it easier and easier to subscribe to your favorite websites' RSS feeds. If you use Firefox or Internet Explorer and find yourself on a page that produces an RSS feed, you will see the RSS icon appear in the address bar. Clicking on this icon allows you add the page's feed to your favorite RSS reader, assuming your favorite RSS reader is in the list that Firefox or IE provides.

What if your reader isn't in the list? Don't worry, you can always add a feed manually.

First, you need to find the feed for the website you wish to track. We tackled this in Part 4: Identifying the RSS feed on a blog, news website, or search.

But a feed?
The feed itself is a webpage. What you are loading into your RSS reader is the webpage's address. When you find a feed on a blog and click on it, you might notice that you get taken to a plain text page with very little formatting that contains the same content as the blog you were reading. This page is the feed.

What's special about the feed is that it is automatically updated whenever the site it is linked to is updated. If a new story is added on a blog, it's feed automatically adds the new story as well. It's like a second version of the original website.

The difference between a website and its feed can be seen in the formatting. A feed has to meet very strict criteria that includes plain text, date and author information, and simplified formatting. This standardization is what allows it to be viewed in a hundred different RSS readers. But this also means most of the formatting and design of the original website disappears. A story from one blog looks pretty much the same, format-wise, as a story from any other blog.

Manually adding the feed
Once you find this page that displays the feed for a website, copy the URL of the webpage. In your RSS reader, find a link called "Add feed" or something along these lines. It will open up a form that asks you to type in the feed's URL. Simply paste the feed you have copied and your feed is now loaded into your RSS reader. Some readers may ask you to configure the feed just the way you like it, but this is essentially all there is to it.

1. Find a feed
2. Copy the URL
3. Click 'Add Feed' in your RSS reader
4. Paste the URL

Finally, some RSS readers don't even require you to locate the specific web page that contains the RSS feed. You can just use the URL for the homepage of the site, and the RSS reader is smart enough to search the website until it finds the feed associated with it. Not every reader works this way, but between manually loading the feed, using Firefox's and IE's shortcuts, and using newsreaders that find the feed for you, you will have a solution that produces tons of content for your reading pleasure in no time.

Next time we will look at transporting your feeds from one newsreader to another, or adding someone else's list of feeds into your list using a format called OPML.

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