19 November, 2007

An Introduction to Feed Readers (aka Aggregators)

What are Feeds?

The Internet is a huge place. Literally billions of websites, and many of them keep changing day by day, if not minute-by-minute. How do you keep track of the latest things going on the websites / blogs we like? You can't possibly consider going to each and every site and keep hitting the 'refresh' button every now and then, can you?

This is why RSS was introduced. RSS, or Rich Site Summary, is an XML output of the latest changes to a website's content. If the site is a blog, RSS will update itself each time there is a new post. The RSS output is called a feed, which will not contain any of the color information or javascript in the original post, but it will maintain the links. There is another feed standard, called Atom, which is usually shown as a second option when setting up a blog.

All popular blogging platforms such as Blogger, Wordpress, Typepad etc. have feeds, and are turned on by default. Some platforms even have feeds for comments to a particular post. Many forum softwares also provide feeds for latest threads, replies to a particular thread, posts made by particular members etc. There are even search engines which provide feeds to the latest results to search phrases!

How do we read the feeds?

"Ok", you'll say, "there are no more websites to check, but what do we do now? Open the feeds and keep hitting refresh button for the latest changes?!!?" HELL NO. There are dozens of online (web-based) and offline (desktop) softwares called 'Feed Readers'.

NewsOnFeeds.com has a huuuuge list of offline and online feed readers

Feed Readers

If you are using a desktop-based (offline) feed reader, they'll register the feed:// protocol to themselves, which means that (if all goes well) when you click on a link to a feed, the feed URL (usually ends with .xml, some times its a query string such as ?output=rss) will be directly passed to the reader.

In case you are using a web-based reader unsupported by your browser, you'll have to manually copy-paste the feed URL into that site.

Whichever the case, the reader then lets you tag the feed with keywords of your choice, for categorizing. Now, whenever you fire up your offline feed reader (or open/refresh the online reader's page), the reader will check all the feeds for updates, and shows you the content of the latest posts in a neat, single scrollable list.

Most readers let you search posts you have read in the past, star posts for later reference, email a post to your friends etc. Imagine searching all your favorite sites for a post, and you'll see how helpful this can be..

The good thing about online feed readers is that there is no installation to be done, which means you can use the site from public cafes or at a friend's computer, without changing anything. Just sign-in, and your own Personalized Newspaper is right there waiting for you.

Some bloggers / websites prefer to share only a portion of their posts via feeds, so that a feed subscriber who reads the summary (first few lines) of the post (or some times just the post title - as decided by the blogger), and finds it interesting, will visit the original site and see / click their ads. Oh I forgot to mention - feeds by default don't have ads - unless they are manually put in by the content owner.

Google Reader is the most popular feed reader worldwide. Head over to the site, and if you are not a user yet, they'll give you a quick intro as well.

How do I know whether my favorite site has feeds?

Sites with feeds usually display the orange feed icon (See FeedIcons.com for multi-sized samples), clicking on which you'll see the feed for the site. Some blogs show a list of feed readers, each with dedicated buttons which let you subscribe to their posts via specific readers in one click.

Browser support

Modern Browsers (Opera 9, Firefox 2 & IE7 do, I'm not sure about older versions.) will display the icon at the right end of the address-bar itself. Click on the icon to see a preview of the current feed listings.

If you are using Firefox 2.0 or above, it will show you a list of supported readers, from which you can set one as default, if you want. I've chosen Google as the option, which means that each time I click on a feed icon, a page asking me to choose either iGoogle or Google Reader shows up.

Latest versions of IE, Firefox & Opera have inbuilt feed readers, albeit simple ones. (Firefox's reader is called Live Bookmarks)

Feed-related Services

FeedBurner (now owned by Google) helps you monetize your feeds, as well as provide a permanent feed URL. You'll be able to change blog platforms without changing your feed URL. My feedburner URL, for example, is feed://feeds.feedburner.com/liveash/blog (the part after .com is customizable.) The monetizing part comes only after you have about 50,000 subscribers, so don't expect to make a quick buck just yet!

Yahoo Pipes is a bit more complicated service; it lets you create mashups of feeds. That is, you can combine different feeds programmatically (with if/else , for/while loops and much more) to create a customized feed.

List of Geek Feeds

To help you get started, here are a few (geeky) feed URLs which I have subscribed to:

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