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RSS - Really Simple Explanation

RSS Icon

Don't you just hate all these acronyms! You've seen that little orange square all over the place by now, but what is it?

Even the developers can't seem to agree on exactly what the RSS acronym stands for. "Really Simple Syndication" seems to be the one most frequently cited. (Better than "RDF Site Summary". An acronym within an acronym!)

I know, that doesn't help you at all so instead let me tell you what an RSS feed does for you. It allows you to anonymously retrieve new information from the RSS feed source (blog, website, etc.) whenever the publisher updates that source.

Most of the time the source material of the feed is a blog or some kind of list of articles, but it doesn't have to be. It can be any bit of information that gets released over time. For example, you may encounter an RSS feed for the list of comments posted to a single blog entry or article.

What you see in your feed reader is a list of items with a subject line, that when clicked will give either a summary of the content and link to the original or a copy of the original item in it's entirety.

Why do I need an RSS feed?

The major benefits for using RSS to subscribe to content are:

  1. You don't have to provide any of your personal information to "subscribe" to an RSS feed. Hooray! Your email stays safe from spamming.
  2. Instead of cluttering your email inbox, updates appear separately in your RSS folders.
  3. Your updates can be automatically and easily organized into a folder structure. (e.g. hockey news in this folder, web design stuff in that folder, etc.)

OK, how do I subscribe to an RSS Feed?

First, you need an RSS client or reader. If you're just getting started, I recommend using your favorite email client. Pretty much all modern email clients have a built-in feed reader. It also goes with how people typically check for incoming email. Only now you'll also be able to check for updates from your favorite bloggers or websites.

I'll give you some step-by-step examples at the end of this post.

RSS1.0, RSS2.0, RDF, Atom, XML? Hunh?

Not to worry, those are all different "flavors" of the same feed that pretty much all do the same thing. They all use the XML data format to transmit their data. If given the choice between RSS and Atom, choose RSS for maximum compatibility.

If presented a choice between RSS1.0 and RSS2.0, choose RSS2.0, again, for maximum compatibility.

RDF is the same as RSS1.0.

If your RSS reader throws an error or if it doesn't load or display the entries within the feed, try switching to the alternate format to see if that solves your problem.

What if the icon isn't orange?

Different color feed icons don't mean anything. The web designer for that site is just trying to mess with you!

Getting Started

Though there are literally hundreds of available feed readers, unless you have a very specialized need, there's pretty much no need to download a stand-alone feed reader. I'll outline below the basic steps to configure:

But before you do that, you need to get the "feed URL". It should always start with "http" and may end with .rss or .xml or anything else for that matter. Some sites will show you this feed URL, so simply highlight it and copy it directly.

Otherwise, try clicking the feed icon/link. Sometimes that will take you to another page with more feed options. If nothing happens or you simply see more feed icons, then you'll need to right-mouse-click the feed icon/link and "Copy Shortcut" (Internet Explorer) or "Copy Link Location" (Firefox) or "Copy Link" (Safari) or, you get the picture.

You now have the feed URL ready to be pasted into your feed reader of choice.

Microsoft Office Outlook 2007


  1. On the Tools menu, click Account Settings.
  2. On the RSS Feeds tab, click New.
  3. In the New RSS Feed dialog box, type or press CTRL+V to paste the URL of the RSS Feed. For example:
  4. Click Add.
  5. Click OK.

Your feeds will now appear in a folder called RSS Feeds. You can right-click that folder to create subfolders for your feeds.

Internet Explorer 8


  1. Simply browse to the page that that shows a feed is available. 


  1. Browse to the RSS feed itself. (You'll need to do this if multiple feeds are available on a single page.)
  2. This should cause the orange RSS icon on the IE toolbar to light up. Click that button.
  3. Click Subscribe to this feed.
  4. Select your options in the presented popup dialog window.
  5. Click the Subscribe button.

Your RSS feeds will now appear under the Feeds tab in the Favorites sidebar.

Google Reader/GMail

  1. Visit
  2. Sign into your Google Account (GMail) or create a new one.
  3. Click the Add a Subcription button at the top of the Google Reader page.
  4. Enter or paste the feed URL and click Add.

In Closing

That should get you started. If there are any other feed readers you use or want to discuss, please leave a message below.

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