Walt Mossberg

A Guide to Using RSS, Which Helps You Scan Vast Array of Web Sites

If you read a dozen or more online news sites every day, managing them all can be difficult. In the most popular Web browser, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, you have to laboriously open them one at a time. You can open each in a separate window, but the windows pile up in the task bar at the bottom of the screen, making a visual mess that is hard to navigate.

One good solution is to use a more modern browser with a feature called tabbed browsing. These browsers — such as Firefox for Windows PCs and Apple Computer’s Macintosh models; or Apple’s own Safari browser for the Mac — allow you to open many pages simultaneously, in the same window. Each page is marked by a file-folder-style tab, and you can switch among them by just clicking on the tabs.

But even tabbed browsers have a limit. If you try to open dozens, or scores, of Web pages at once, the tabs either become too small to show what Web site they represent, or they slide off the screen and can’t be easily seen.

So power users have been employing a system called RSS that allows them to quickly scan large numbers of newsy, frequently updated Web sites. RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication, is a kind of computer code that Web site owners can add to their sites to make them easier to scan quickly.

When interpreted by special RSS-savvy software programs called “news readers” or “news aggregators,” the RSS code allows these programs to display only the headlines and short summaries of these news sites’ latest articles. This is called an “RSS feed.” Users can “subscribe” to various feeds and quickly scan the headlines and summaries. Then, if they so choose, they can click on a link to read the entire article.

Some RSS addicts regularly scan hundreds of such feeds each day. The news-reader software keeps scooping up the freshest headlines from the RSS feeds, and signals when new headlines are available.

RSS, and a competing syndication system called Atom, were first used by people who write Web logs, or blogs — newsy, diary-type Web sites where entries are added in sequence. Later, the Web sites of traditional news organizations added RSS feeds.

For awhile, the use of these feeds was mainly the province of techies. The reader software you needed to use them wasn’t well known to mainstream Web surfers, and the process of subscribing to a feed involved clicking on an orange button on the site unhelpfully labeled “XML,” which is the name of the computer language in which the RSS code is written. If you clicked on these buttons in a standard Web browser, all you saw was a page of gobbledygook.

Now, however, RSS feeds are going mainstream. Both the Firefox and Safari browsers have built-in, easy-to-use RSS readers. There also are some add-in news readers for Internet Explorer, and even for Microsoft’s Outlook email program.

In Firefox, whenever you reach a Web page with an RSS feed, an orange icon appears at the lower right of the screen. If you click on the icon, Firefox lets you add the feed to your browser as if it were a bookmark. But these bookmarks are “live.” They are constantly receiving new headlines from the feed. When you click on them, a drop-down list of the freshest headlines appears. Click on the headline, and the story appears.

In the latest version of the Safari browser, called Safari RSS, Apple has gone even further. When Safari reaches a page with an RSS feed, an icon labeled “RSS” appears next to the Web address at the top of the screen. If you click on it, you can add the feed as if it were a bookmark, as in Firefox. But Safari can instantly generate a beautifully laid-out special Web page that displays all the headlines and summaries from one, or even all, of your RSS feeds.

There also are some products, such as Feed Scout (www.bytescout.com), that add a special toolbar to Internet Explorer, giving that aging browser the ability to act as an RSS reader.

Of course, you also can use a stand-alone news reader. These contain many more features than the browsers do for managing and organizing feeds. Examples of news readers for Windows include FeedDemon and Awasu. On the Mac, my favorite is NetNewsWire. All these readers, and many others, are available for download at www.download.com.

Some other products, notably NewsGator, take a different approach. They add RSS capabilities to email programs, and treat RSS headlines and summaries like email. NewsGator, also available at www.download.com, effectively turns Microsoft Outlook into a news reader.

Some news readers don’t require any software at all. They are simply Web sites that allow you to subscribe to, and search, RSS feeds. One is called BlogLines, at www.bloglines.com. Another is PubSub, at www.pubsub.com. Feedster, at www.feedster.com, is a search engine for RSS feeds. It specializes in custom RSS feeds comprised of items it finds on specific topics you search for.

Whichever approach you choose, if you are a news-oriented Web surfer who wants the latest stuff from a broad range of sources, RSS can be a great boon.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com.


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