Layman's guide to web syndication

Introduction

I aim to explain syndication — how it works and how to use it — without delving into technicalities

One of the great pleasures of the web is to sit down with a nice cup of tea and catch up with friends, family, and world events. Many people working in an office start the day this way: checking BBC News; reading friends’ blogs; discovering the latest rumours surrounding their football club.

Do you do the same? Every morning my dad will check Planet F1 for the latest Formula One gossip. During lunch breaks my flat-mate will browse The Guardian. Another friend, once home from work, will check Techcrunch to catch up with industry news.

In these situations there is little more depressing than going to your favourite web site to find it hasn’t been updated since you were there last. Your daughter’s blog left unattended, probably because she’s spending far too much time with her new gentleman friend. Your son’s blog droughty while he recovers from another night of heavy drinking with his uni pals.

Ideally, we want to stop the tedium of checking sites for updates and focus on reading new articles. This is where syndication comes in. Known variously as RSS, Atom, XML feeds, and syndication, they differ in technical details but offer you the same: letting you know when updates have been made to sites without you having the bother of checking.

Syndication, as I’ll call it here, has taken the web industry by storm. It’s used everywhere. Talk to a web developer and they’ll tell you they’ve been using it for years. But, as with a lot of things geek, those on the cutting-edge often forget to tell others how to use the new technology.

That is where this article comes in: I aim to explain syndication — how it works and how to use it — without delving into technicalities, and without overwhelming you with jargon. This is syndication for the rest of us. The good news? It’s easy.

What is web syndication?

The good news? You'll find it easy.

The late nineties was a time unloved by web developers: the Browser Wars. Netscape and Microsoft desperately battled for dominance over our desktops; to woo us they continually came up with new ideas — to the chagrin of web developers, who had to struggle to get the half-finished browsers to work as they were promised.

Most of these ideas are no longer used and, thankfully, long-forgotten. But a few turned out to be very useful.

One of these was Netscape’s RSS. It wasn’t a new idea but it was the one that gained traction.

Before RSS, there was no way to tell if, say, The Guardian web site had a new article without going to the site and checking. Netscape invented RSS because they wanted their My Netscape site to show the latest headlines from across the web, automatically.

They decided the best way to do this was to design a type of file companies could put on their web site that would, for each article on their site, list a headline and a summary. Netscape would then regularly check each web site to see if this file had been updated; if it had, any new articles would be added to My Netscape.

It worked.

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, you’ll understand when I say RSS ‘tipped’ the web towards web syndication. It became a social epidemic. (If you haven’t read the book, do; it’s excellent.) People everywhere added these special RSS files — known as feeds — to their web sites. It freed the data.

RSS allowed people to find out what articles were being written, and when they were written. People used RSS to find out when a new article was published on their favourite site. No longer did they have to check the sites regularly for updates; instead, they could use applications known as feed readers to tell them when a new article was published.

You might use syndication without even knowing.

My Netscape has long since faded into obscurity. The original RSS has been superseded. But web syndication is used by millions of people every day — you might even use it without knowing. If you write a blog, the software you use almost certainly creates feeds for you. If you’re a fan of podcasts, you may be interested in knowing that they’re simply a special type of feed.

There are thousands — millions — of feeds on the web. I hope you’re wondering how you can make the best of them. Next we’ll look at what you can use syndication feeds for, before showing you how to use them.

What can I use feeds for?

When, in 2002, The New York Times adopted RSS feeds across its web site, syndication broke into the mainstream. Other news sites followed; now you’ll struggle to find a page on BBC News without a feed. The most common use of feeds is to keep up-to-date with the news.

The main feed on BBC News is for its latest headlines; but more than that, the site has a feed for its Welsh-language news, for each county cricket club in England, for news from Somerset, and for news just for kids. It has a feed for everything. Whatever your interest, you’ll probably find a feed for it on BBC News.

At The Guardian’s Comment is Free you’ll find feeds for individual authors, allowing you find out when, say, A. C. Grayling or Sidney Blumenthal publish new articles.

Blogs frequently utilise feeds in exactly the same way news sites do, with feeds for latest articles, for a particular category of entries, even for articles by individual authors.

Podcasting is a relatively new use for syndication feeds. A podcast is a digital recording made available on the internet for downloading; although its name implies they are only for use with Apple’s iPod, they can in fact be used with any MP3 player. Just as a feed can describe a list of news articles, so it can describe a list of podcasts. The Ricky Gervais Show is one of the most popular podcasts available.

While most podcasts are audio-only, video podcasts, such as Ze Frank’s The Show are becoming popular too. This shows the flexibility of syndication feeds: from the headlines of The New York Times to your friend’s blog to radio-style programmes to TV-like episodes. Where next?

So far I’ve explained what syndication is and why you’d want to use it; I hope you’re now itching to try it out for yourself. So let’s look at how to use it.

How 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 favourites, under the ‘Feeds’ heading. Microsoft’s web site has further information on using feeds in Internet Explorer.

Using feeds in other ways

Browsers aren’t the only place you can read feeds. In fact, they’re not even the best place. Feed readers are specialised applications designed solely for reading articles from lots of feeds. Each time you run a feed reader they will check all your feeds for new articles and list all the new articles for you.

Feed readers come as both desktop applications and as web-based applications; they are well-worth looking into if you want to make the most of your feeds. Popular applications include NetNewsWire for Mac and FeedDemon for Windows, while Bloglines and Google Reader are both good web-based feed readers.

If you’re a fan of podcasts you might be subscribed to feeds without knowing. The popular iTunes application handles podcasts by subscribing to feeds and downloading new episodes as they become available. To subscribe, browse through the podcast directory in the iTunes Store until you see something you like, and press the ‘Subscribe’ button.

Advanced uses

Now you’re au fait with feeds, I’m sure you’re eager to put them to some more advanced uses. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Your friends’ photos: if you have a Flickr account, you can subscribe to a feed to let you know when any of your friends have uploaded new photos. Log in, go to the page that lists your friends, and you’ll see the feed icon in your browser.

Feeds in your screen saver: Mac OS X comes with a beautiful screen saver that can display your syndication feeds. Open System Preferences, click the Desktop & Screen Saver icon, and choose RSS Visualizer. You can select which of your Safari feeds to display from the Options window.

How’s that book going? we are privileged enough at work to program in the fantastic Django web framework. Two of the men behind Django, Adrian Holovaty and Jacob Kaplan-Moss, are currently writing a book on Django — and they’re making it available online. You can subscribe to a feed that lets you find out when they add new chapters to the book, and you can read them online. If only all authors were this enlightened.

Has that document changed? here at Mercurytide we’ll often collaborate on documents using Google Docs. If we want to know when a document has changed, we can simply subscribe to that document’s feed; when changes are made, the feed is updated.

I’m barely touching the surface here; once you’ve used feeds for a short length of time, you’ll find no end of uses for them. They are very, very flexible.

Summary

Web syndication has been around for the best part of a decade. Although not the first, Netscape’s RSS was the proposal that found wide-spread acceptance.

When The New York Times introduced feeds to their site in 2002, syndication feeds moved into the mainstream. But while those on the cutting-edge were comfortable with feeds by then, a detailed, non-technical explanation of web syndication has never been written.

That’s where this article comes in. I aimed to write a brief history of web syndication, and to show you how you can use it to improve the way you use the web. From keeping up with the latest news, to finding out when your friends have posted on their blogs, to listening to the latest podcasts, I’ve described how you can use browsers or specialised applications know as feed readers to handle your subscriptions.

I finished off by mentioning advanced uses of feeds, although they were left deliberately brief. There are many other interesting ways to use syndication feeds — but it’s up to you to find them.

References


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